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Iran: Harsh Sentences Reflect Liberals' Failure

  • Charles Recknagel

A string of prison sentences for leading reformists this month has highlighted the inability of Iran's liberals to stop a sweeping crackdown by conservatives. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports that the crackdown has robbed reformists of many of their strongest tools for change, including their ability to use their recently gained majority in parliament to enact reforms.

Prague, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The jail terms handed down in Iran last week to some 10 reformists are the latest in a string of setbacks which moderates have suffered since winning parliamentary polls a year ago.

The verdicts by a Tehran court gave Iran's leading investigative journalist 10 years in prison and others -- including a student leader and two outspoken feminists -- terms of four to nine years.

In all cases, the hard-line-dominated court system began with charges the defendants tarnished Iran's image by participating in a controversial conference in Berlin last year.

But the charges against many expanded to include insulting top hard-liners or working against the Islamic system. For many reformists, that suggested the trials were a deliberate effort to purge their movement of several of its leading voices.

The sentences, now being appealed, come as the past year has seen hard-liners close dozens of reformist papers and force the resignation of Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, one of the leading proponents of press freedom.

Those reverses have been accompanied by moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami saying publicly on several occasions that he does not have enough power to carry out what he called "the heavy tasks" on his shoulders. Khatami won almost 70 percent of the popular vote three and a half years ago on promises to give Iranians greater liberties.

The setbacks of the past months are in sharp contrast to the hopes of many reformists, which were running high a little less than a year ago. Last year, reformist candidates and sympathetic independents swept parliamentary elections, giving them control of the legislature for the first time.

That election, like municipal polls which reformists won in early 1999, was widely interpreted as a referendum on Khatami's reform promises and a new popular mandate to push ahead with them.

But shortly after taking their seats in parliament, the reformists found themselves unable to realize their first goal: to ease press restrictions. Instead, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the deputies to abandon the effort, branding reformist newspapers as bases of the enemy.

Since then, most of the reform legislation passed by the parliament, such as a measure raising the minimum marriage age for girls from 9 to 14, has been vetoed by the hard-line Guardian Council, an oversight body which reviews legislation for conformance with the Islamic Revolution's values.

Analysts say that as a result the new parliament feels so stymied that many independents sympathetic to reforms are now hesitating to press for them.

Kenneth Katzman, a regional expert at the Congressional Research Center in Washington, describes the reformist-led parliament this way:

"[The parliament] feels circumscribed. It feels that if it moves it is going to be quashed by Khamenei and his allies. Many of those who were elected thinking that they would be very strongly supportive of [President] Khatami have now backed off and gone to sit on a fence to see which way the wind blows in the longer term and they have been very hesitant to really come out strongly for him and his program."

Katzman says this hesitancy leaves the hard-liners enjoying the upper hand in all of Iran's major political arenas. But the analyst also says the hard-liners' victory has come at a considerable cost to themselves because they have shown how ready they are to ignore the desires of most Iranians for change.

"[The hard-liners] have really shrugged off the fact that they are unable to get a mandate from the people. They have proceeded as if they don't care what the people think and they have proceeded apace to block Mr. Khatami at every step possible. Fundamentally, because they fear change."

Many analysts say the success of the hard-liners' crackdown now calls into question whether Iran's presidential election in June -- when Khatami is widely expected to run and win again on a reform platform -- can change the situation.

Katzman says that instead the poll may simply reinforce what the past year has already well demonstrated.

"I think [the election] is less significant than it might have been a year or two ago. All it would do is again show that Khatami is popular. He has already done that three times, with his own election in 1997 and then with the municipal elections and then with the parliamentary elections last year."

Katzman adds:

"[But] the problem is that the hard-liners don't seem to be cowed by his popularity. They are proceeding with their own obstructionist program despite Khatami's popularity."

Katzman says that means there are few reasons to expect the uneasy conflict between Iran's conservatives and reformers to end anytime soon.

Instead, the only certainty as Khatami's nears the end of four years in office is that any second term will begin almost exactly as the first. That is, with people's hopes for reforms still high, but prospects for achieving them as distant as ever.

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