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Iran: Outlawing Opposition Party Raises Fears Of Crackdown On Reformist Politicians

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Iran's reformists are expressing deep frustration over the continuing crackdown on their movement by hard-liners. After a court ordered the jailing of more than 30 liberals late last week, Iran's largest pro-reform party said it will consider leaving the government if conservatives do not listen to calls for change. RFE/RL looks at the mounting political tensions between reformists and hard-liners and asks where the conflict may go from here.

Prague, 2 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hard-liners in Iran's establishment often have used their control of the courts to close liberal newspapers and jail journalists and activists.

Now, however, hard-liners appear to be increasingly expanding their crackdown to target reformist politicians, as well, a development that could seriously exacerbate tensions between the two sides.

Signs of an expanding crackdown came when the hard-line-dominated Revolutionary Court ordered the dissolution late last week of one of the Islamic Republic's oldest opposition groups, the long-tolerated Iran Freedom Movement. The court also sentenced more than 30 liberal Islamists to up to 10 years in jail on charges of seeking to overthrow the Islamic system.

The disbanding of the group appears aimed at suppressing the view espoused by some moderates that Iran should remain an Islamic republic but not necessarily under absolute clerical rule. The view, known as Islamist nationalism, is only one of many tides within the reform movement. But its strong growth during the last 20 years, particularly in universities, has caused the clerical establishment to view it as a dangerous challenge to its leadership.

The order to disband the party was met with anger by the Iran Freedom Movement and by Iran's largest pro-reform party, the Islamic Participation Front. The Islamic Participation Front, headed by Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the brother of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, does not question the notion of clerical rule but wants greater democracy and transparency in government.

The leader of the Iran Freedom Movement, Ebrahim Yazdi, called the court order unconstitutional and suggested that hard-liners have deliberately sidestepped legal immunities granted to politicians. He appealed to the country's highest security body, the Supreme National Security Council, to intervene, saying the court's decision threatened the country's "national security and interests."

The lawyer for some of those convicted, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the Revolutionary Court has no power under Iran's constitution to dissolve political parties. "The members of the Commission on the Law of Political Parties are the only legal [entity] with this authority and, according to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Revolutionary Courts do not have legal, investigative, or punitive powers to pursue political parties for alleged culpabilities," Dadkhah said.

He also said it is illegal for the Revolutionary Court to jail individuals for supporting a political party that has not yet been outlawed. "If the court issues a verdict to make Nahzat-i-Azadi [the Freedom Movement] illegal, it cannot declare illegal the actions engaged in by the members or leaders before the issuance of the verdict, and then punish them," Dadkhah said.

The court order is the latest in a series of hard-line attacks on the Freedom Movement and Islamist nationalists, including a nationwide roundup of more than 60 leaders and supporters by security forces last year. Many of those detained, including academics in their 70s, were held in solitary confinement for months without being charged. Most were later freed on sizable bails.

The Freedom Movement was created by Mehdi Bazargan, the Islamic Republic's first prime minister. Its members were influential in the government immediately after the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah but were subsequently sidelined by radical revolutionaries and Islamic hard-liners. The founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, banned the movement shortly before his death, but it was tolerated, largely due to its popularity among intellectuals.

Commenting early this week on the court order, Islamic Participation Front leader Mohammad-Reza Khatami said the verdict shows a disregard for reformists' attempts to work peacefully within the system. The Iran Students News Agency ISNA quoted him as saying that "in the current situation, there is a need for greater unity and harmony. The verdict shows that some people do not care for harmony."

He also told newspapers earlier this week that his reformist bloc will consider leaving the government if hard-liners continued to oppose changes promised by President Khatami. He said that, "if the [hard-line] power seekers fail to accede to the wishes of the people, we will have no choice but to leave the leadership."

The remarks by the head of the Islamic Participation Front, which holds almost half the seats in the reformist-led parliament, express the mounting concern in the reformist camp that hard-liners may seek to repress reformist political activity ahead of upcoming legislative elections. Those elections are some 18 months away. Reformists are counting on them to again win an overwhelming popular mandate with which to confront the conservatives.

The pro-reform bloc's concerns over the hard-liners' tactics were heightened by several developments last week other than the attack on the Islamist nationalists. These included a court order shutting down the Islamist Participation Front's newspaper "Noruz," the most widely circulated liberal daily. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni also warned Muslims to avoid people "who worship party building," an apparent criticism of reformist party organizers.

Accusations by conservative newspapers that the Islamic Participation Front is America's so-called "fifth column" because some liberal parliamentarians have called for reducing tensions with Washington through confidence-building measures have also caused reformists to feel embattled. The hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps declared last month that it stands ready to defend the Islamic Revolution against "foreign invaders and their internal allies."

These developments have led to Western press speculation about whether the political impasse -- coupled with widespread unhappiness with Iran's ailing economy -- means that Iran is heading for social upheaval.

The London-based "Jane's Intelligence Digest" wrote this week that, "as the power struggle between the two factions intensifies, many Iranians are losing patience with their country's political leadership."

The periodical also said that, "a large majority have demonstrated by their votes for Khatami that they want to liberalize the political system, improve the human-rights situation, end Iran's continued isolation, and reform the economy." It concluded that, "ahead of the next general election, the possibility of widespread popular unrest in Iran cannot be ruled out."

But Iran's reformists themselves say they reject social upheaval as a way to change the system and remain determined to reform the establishment peacefully. Reformist leaders also have said that any unrest plays into the hands of the conservatives, who frequently have tried to undermine the reformists' popularity by insisting that political reforms will inevitably bring chaos and violence.

The reformists' own fears of unrest have led many observers to conclude that the hard-liners' continuing crackdown may be more likely to lead to greater cohesion and purposefulness within the reform movement than to any immediate eruption of discontent.

Ahmed Salamatian is a former Iranian member of parliament who is now a political analyst in Paris. He recently told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he expects the anger over the treatment of the Freedom Movement to bring the diverse streams within the reformist movement closer together. He said anger is particularly high over the court's order to flog 84-year-old Ahmed Sadr Hadj-Seyyed-Djavadi, a Freedom Movement leader and former justice minister of the Islamic Republic. "This verdict, which condemns an 84-year-old person to flogging, is provocative. It is perceived as a calculated step taken by a segment of the Islamic Republic's ruling class. And since virtually equal measures of suppression are being applied against reformists [of all persuasions], the Freedom Movement and other elements of the mainstream opposition mainstream could form a more cohesive coalition against the hard-liners," Salamatian said.

During its annual convention last month, delegates from the mainstream Islamic Participation Front pledged to invigorate their organizational work in the provinces and to resist any attempts at repression ahead of parliamentary elections.

The New York-based "Eurasia View" quotes sources in the pro-reform party as saying it already is preparing to replace the banned "Noruz" with a new newspaper employing the same staff. The name of the paper is to be "Rouz No," or "New Day."