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Iran: Arrests Aim To Lower Reform Expectations

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian authorities arrested 40 more political activists over the weekend in the latest manifestation of a continuing crackdown on reformists in the run-up to presidential elections in June. RFE/FL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what prompted the most recent arrests -- which have been strongly criticized by Iran's liberal camp and in foreign capitals -- and what impact they may have on the upcoming poll.

Prague, 11 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the activists arrested last weekend in Tehran, Mashad, Isfahan, and Zanjan had one thing in common.

They were all members of the long-banned but until recently tolerated Iran Freedom Movement, or IFM, a political party opposed to the Islamic Republic's system of absolute clerical rule.

Their arrests closely follow Tehran's reinforcing the ban on the party last month, when police detained 21 sympathizers on charges of seeking to overthrow the Islamic establishment. The police rounded up the party's leaders and members when the hard-line Revolutionary Court said confessions by those detained earlier showed the suspects had links to Iran's armed opposition based in Iraq, the Mujahedin-e Khalq.

But the accusations are highly controversial. Iran's Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi told parliamentarians yesterday the judiciary had acted independently and that, according to Intelligence Ministry documents, the detainees were not seeking to overthrow the regime.

The latest arrests in Iran have sparked protests from the European Union and from the United States. The 15 EU foreign ministers dropped plans to discuss trade and economic cooperation with Iran in a 9 April meeting in Brussels. Correspondents say that move reflected concern the arrests seek to undermine Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's foreign policy successes in opening Iran to greater contacts and trade abroad. Washington called the arrests evidence of a deteriorating human rights situation in Iran.

Until now, the leaders of the IFM have often been targets of official harassment, but their prominence in Iranian society had seemed to afford them some protection.

Some are former senior officials who served in Iran's first provisional government after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Shiite clerical establishment later replaced that government, headed by the late Mehdi Bazargan, as being too Western. But the clerics allowed Bazargan to maintain the IFM as a dissident movement which advocated the peaceful pursuit of freedom and democracy.

Last weekend's sweeping arrest of IFM leaders immediately prompted an outcry from Iran's largest reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front. The front, headed by Mohammad-Rheza Khatami, the Iranian president's brother, called the arrests unprecedented. It also warned they are an attempt to influence political participation only two month's ahead of the June presidential poll.

Shortly after the arrests, President Khatami himself appealed for moderation. He warned that if freedom to criticize is not tolerated in Iran, there is a danger -- in his words -- that thoughts will go underground and create a breeding ground for unrest.

RFE/RL asked Bahman Baktiari, an expert on Iran's politics at the University of Maine in the northeasten United States, what prompted Islamic hard-line authorities to crack down on the IFM leaders now.

Baktiari says the arrests appear to be part of a strategy by hard-liners to press Khatami to declare whether he will or will not run for reelection. At the same time, the arrests help the hard-liners to weaken him as a moderate voice. Khatami has yet to declare his candidacy, but has repeatedly said in recent months that he lacks the powers needed to carry through his promises of reform.

"Khatami's lack of a clear statement in terms of his candidacy has put the hard-liners in a situation where they don't know what candidate to put forward. One group prefers that he will come out and declare whether he runs or not, so they are pursuing a strategy of pressuring him. There is another group which does not want him to run and they are represented by the ones who control the judiciary."

Baktiari continues:

"The hard-liners in the judiciary do not want Khatami for another four years because they think the momentum and the political climate is not of such a fashion that the judiciary can keep arresting people and keep shutting down newspapers very long. So they want an end to this thing."

Khatami was elected in May 1997 in a landslide victory on promises to give Iranians more social freedom and a greater political voice. His first years saw a rapid increase in the issuing of licenses for reformist newspapers and, last year, a sweep by reformist candidates in parliamentary elections. But recent months have brought a powerful conservative backlash that has shut down most of the liberal media amid continuing arrests of reformist journalists and activists.

Baktiari says the Iran Freedom Movement is just one of the currents in the country's reformist tide. But it has worried hard-liners because its ideas of a Moslem state not necessarily under clerical leadership have gained ground over the last 20 years, particularly in universities.

"The ideas of the freedom movement in terms of religion and democracy, acknowledgement of the rights of everyone, pluralism -- these are the ideas that go back to the beginning of the revolution. And those ideas have grown gradually and picked up ground. [IFM supporters] have been participating [in politics] under the coalition called the 'religious nationalist coalition,' but a better analogy is like a Christian Democracy movement in Latin America."

Such ideas contrast with the platform of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which many observers regard as seeking reforms within the Islamic Republic's system of clerical rule. The IMF is generally seen in Iran as being more Western and free-market oriented than the front, many of whose members favor continuing Iran's current state-dominated and social welfare-oriented economy.

But Baktiari says that despite those differences, the front views the crackdown on the IMF as highly dangerous because it suggests the much larger Islamic reform movement might be the hard-liners' next target:

"There is a real possibility that the judiciary will go after the Islamic Participation Front. There are some people in the judiciary who have hinted that it is not enough for a group [like the Front] to come out all the time and criticize actions of the judiciary, hinting that the Islamic Participation Front and the [Mujahedeen Islamic Revolution Organization] are two groups who could be the next targets if they keep pushing [the criticism]."

However, Baktiari says, the fact that some of the members of the Participation Front's central committee are parliamentarians could make arresting them considerably more difficult than the judiciary's previous arrests of editors and activists.

Baktiari says that may mean last weekend's crackdown is principally intended to be a warning -- as election day approaches -- from the conservative camp to those who back President Khatami, and perhaps to Khatami himself, to lower their expectations of change during the next four-year presidency.

It leaves uncertain whether a more decisive battle -- a direct confrontation between hard-liners and reformist parliamentarians -- may yet be fought in the weeks ahead.

Khatami has given no indication if and when he will declare his candidacy, but he still has some time to do so. Under Iranian law, the president can wait until some 30 days before the election to announce. Iranians are scheduled to go to the polls on 8 June.

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