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Iran: Khatami Seeks To Ease Pressure On Embattled Reformists

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami twice denounced the suppression of reforms this week amid the continuing hard-line crackdown against Iran's liberals. As RFE/RL reports, the president's criticisms appear intended to relieve pressure on his reformist supporters, who increasingly complain they are being intimidated through illegal procedures and threats of force.

Prague, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami this week delivered his strongest warnings since his re-election that hard-line suppressions of reforms run counter to Iran's national interests.

The Iranian president, who won a second term by a landslide majority last June, told an audience of young people yesterday that, "Suppressing people's demands does not mean national unity." He also said that, "unity does not mean imposing an idea through legal power or using illegal forces."

Those statements followed a warning on 5 May that he will resign if he feels the Iranian reform movement is unable to make progress. Speaking to a group of teachers, he said, "If I feel the government has deviated even a little from...the path of the Iranian nation's reform movement, I will not remain in the presidential office...for even one second."

The warnings break a long silence that has characterized the president's first 11 months in office since he was re-elected on promises to continue working for greater political and social freedoms. That silence has come as Khatami has seen many of the early reformist gains during his first term rolled back in the past two years.

The rollback has included hard-liner-dominated courts banning some 60 pro-reform publications since reformists massively won parliamentary elections in February 2000. It has also seen the jailing of scores of liberal journalists, activists, and intellectuals.

Analysts say that Khatami's decision to break his silence now and to criticize the suppression of reforms publicly could be a measure of how besieged many of his liberal supporters are feeling. The president has previously shown himself reluctant to criticize the establishment publicly. But during his first term, he occasionally broke with that tradition to complain in speeches that he lacks sufficient power for carrying out what he termed "the heavy tasks" of reforming Iran's system.

Merzhad Boroujerdi, a regional expert at Syracuse University in the U.S. state of New York, said Khatami may have two motives in warning that he will step down if all progress on reforms is blocked.

One could be to force Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step in to protect at least part of the reform process in the interest of stability. The other is to show his supporters that he is still committed to them.

Boroujerdi said: "Khatami can [threaten] to turn in his resignation, and then Khamenei can say 'I do not accept,' which might be a reasonable course of action that [Khamenei] might take if there is a possibility of political turmoil in the country. And if it comes to that, then the reformists perhaps can strengthen their negotiating position, because really right now there is not much on the table going for them."

"It also will enhance Khatami's political capital with the public. In other words, it will rejuvenate his electoral base as people say finally he has found the stomach to stand up for our demands," Boroujerdi said.

Khatami's twin statements this week may also be intended to relieve pressure on his reformist supporters, who increasingly complain they not only are being targeted by hard-line courts but also are being intimidated through illegal procedures and threats of force.

In the latest crackdown on reformists, a hard-line court this week sentenced a senior liberal member of parliament to six months in jail. The court charged Mohsen Mirdamadi, who heads the parliament's Foreign Affairs Commission, with engaging in anti-state propaganda.

The court also suspended a key reformist newspaper that Mirdamadi manages, "Nowrouz," for six months. Reuters reported the charges were brought against Mirdamadi and the newspaper by several hard-line bodies, including the state broadcasting agency and an Islamic militia.

This week's court action temporarily silences "Nowrouz," which has become famous for its criticisms of conservatives and for challenging the veracity of some official statements.

As just one example, the paper quoted Mirdamadi himself this week as saying he has information that Iran has held secret talks with the U.S. to try to defuse tensions generated by Washington's branding Iran as part of an "axis of evil." His statement directly contradicts Tehran's official position that it rules out any negotiations with Washington. U.S. officials deny any secret talks with Iran.

As hard-line courts continue their crackdown, reformers say they often use irregular or illegal procedures to do so. These include courts acting outside their usual jurisdictions and the introduction of evidence allegedly seized in searches of reformists' offices.

In one recent case, a military court stepped out of its usual jurisdiction to try to sentence prominent lawyer Nasser Zarafshan, who had been looking into the assassinations 3 1/2 years ago of several nationalists and writers. The court charged him with publicizing confidential government documents and possessing arms and alcohol allegedly seized at his law firm.

Any investigation into the political assassinations are sensitive for Iran's hard-liners because Iran's Intelligence Ministry has admitted they were carried out by its own "rogue agents." The case remains unresolved for many reformers, who suspect the agents may have acted upon higher orders.

Reformists have also complained of intimidation by security agents who have summoned them for questioning and threatened them with force if they criticize conservative figures. In February, some 20 people were called into the basement of a Tehran police office for interrogations by anonymous agents. The practice has since been reported to have stopped after sustained criticism by liberal newspapers.

If Iran's reformists now feel on the defensive, they remain emboldened, however, by their strong victories both in the 2000 parliamentary polls and in city- and town-council elections the year before. But they have yet to use their control of elected bodies to successfully challenge the power of Iran's conservatives, who dominate the government's nonelected positions. Conservatives control the judiciary, the security forces, state broadcasting and the Guardian Council, which assures legislation conforms to Islamic Revolutionary values.

The reformists believe that change is necessary to meet the demands of Iran's youthful population, more than 50 percent of which is below the age of 25. Most young people were born years after the Islamic Revolution and many are now restive regarding the sacrifice of individual freedoms that it demands.

In uttering his warnings this week, Khatami told conservatives the government must allow greater social, political, and religious freedoms if the Islamic republic is to keep young people from being disenchanted with its values.

He said, "If we say the pillars of Islam are not compatible with freedom of speech and freedom of thought...this idea could lead to our younger generations distancing themselves from religion."

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