Prague, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The arrests this week of employees of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, implicated in the murders of intellectuals and opposition figures, has been hailed by some inside the country and abroad as a victory for moderate forces.
Three dissident writers and an opposition figure and his wife were found murdered late last year, sparking sharp concern among independent voices who feared a hidden campaign to silence them.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin called the arrests "a positive step toward maintaining the rule of law in Iran and providing for the security of Iranians to express their beliefs."
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate, praised the intelligence ministry for what he called an "honest" investigation.
But other observers argue the arrests may be an effort at political damage control that could even strengthen the position of hard-liners. They note that the arrests were announced only after the moderate Iranian "Salam" newspaper said it had information linking the Intelligence Ministry to the murders.
In its own response to the arrests, the ministry suggested that unnamed foreign elements were to blame. The ministry described the murderers as "irresponsible colleagues ... with deviatory thoughts acting ... as surreptitious agents and in the interests of aliens."
On Wednesday, Parliament Speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri also alluded to foreign plots and said: "We must not allow the foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs."
President Khatami, meanwhile, praised the Intelligence Ministry for protecting Iran from foreign dangers.
The French newspapers "Le Figaro" and "Liberation," London's "Daily Telegraph," and "The New York Times" all speculated that the arrests could prove to be a significant victory for Khatami. Iranian political analyst and Khatami supporter Saeed Leilaz told the "Daily Telegraph" that this was "a great step forward" for Iran and its president.
Some also see the development as the first time the Intelligence Ministry has been made answerable to outside authorities. The ministry is identified with the conservatives and its leadership is selected by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
An edition of the Iranian newspaper "Zan" quoted Professor Houshang Amirahmadi as saying that the arrests are a significant move in favor of the rule of law.
But such assertions may prove optimistic. If the people arrested are tried by a military court, the proceedings of which are normally closed, little will be made public about the actual proceedings.
Even if open, the hearings could serve as a platform in which either foreigners are blamed or the perpetrators are shown as isolated extremists. In fact, the state-run "Tehran Times," in an editorial yesterday, said the trial should be open to prove that the murders were instigated by foreigners.
However the trial is conducted, a few things remains clear: At present, both the judiciary and the military remain firmly under the control of the conservative Iranian faction, and the Intelligence Ministry continues to operate largely above the law.