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Iran: Media Crackdown Fuels Demands For Change -- An Analysis

Since protests rocked Iran last month, conservatives have sought to crack down on liberal media and have proposed new laws to make many forms of free speech a state crime. But analysts say the attempt to crack down has few prospects for success and that its only real effect will be to further fuel moderates' demands for change. Our correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 5 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's conservatives are showing no signs of bending to reformers' demands for change after student protests for more press freedom last month exploded into widespread rioting in many key cities.

In fact, the protests have caused quite the opposite effect. This week, conservatives pressed ahead with attacks on liberal media by banning for five years the country's leading pro-reform daily, Salaam. It was an earlier banning of Salaam for an unspecified time that initially sparked last month's student protests.

The five-year ban came as Salaam's publisher, a senior Iranian clergyman and reformist, Ayatollah Mohammad Mussavi-Khoeiniha was sentenced yesterday by a hardline-dominated Special Clergy Court to three-and-a-half years in jail, plus whipping. Mussavi-Khoeiniha was convicted of publishing a confidential document of the intelligence service and on lesser charges of insulting conservative members of parliament.

Both the jail sentence and lashes are expected to be suspended by the tribunal in light of his revolutionary credentials. The tribunal -- which operates outside Iran's civil court system -- has exclusive jurisdiction over clerics.

The banning of Salaam is just one sign of what appears to be a determined new effort by hardliners to head off further unrest in Iran by putting tight limits on how much Iranians can take advantage of new social and political freedoms promoted by relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami since his election in 1997.

Earlier this week, Iran's chief civil judge, conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, proposed sweeping new legislation to the cabinet to classify as state crimes such activities as giving interviews to the foreign media when they are deemed harmful to Iran's political system. The tough new measures, which would have to pass through the moderate-dominated cabinet before going to parliament, did not spell out the penalties for offenders.

At the same time, public confessions on television by suspects accused of organizing last month's unrest have heightened a sense that Iran is returning to its previous strict days of revolutionary xenophobia. The televised confessions have blamed foreign powers and media for trying to destabilize Iran. In a show that such activities will not be tolerated, some 50,000 vigilantes of the volunteer Islamic Basiji militia are currently conducting military maneuvers in the hills around Tehran.

But even as Iran's conservatives appear in the ascendancy following last month's unrest, and moderates in Iran's government seem silent and on the defensive, few analysts predict the current crackdown will be more than a bitter yet inconclusive round in Iran's long-running battle over political change.

Azar Nafisi is a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She told RFE/RL that she believes the protest movement in Iran is of a size and strength that makes it extremely difficult for hardliners to suppress.

Nafisi -- who taught in Tehran until two years ago -- says that the various groups desiring change in Iran have formed into a cohesive movement since they handed Khatami a landslide victory in elections three years ago. She also says that last month's unrest has changed Iran by moving the debate over greater freedoms out of government and media circles and into the public forum, where it is much harder to stifle. Azar Nafisi

"The dominant discourse has changed from reducing everything to just the reformists and the conservatives or hardliners within the government. I think the most important thing that is happening is that those 20 million -- or those forces who urged the 20 million to vote for President Khatami -- are now actively on the scene. And they are showing what they want not just by voting ... but through organizing in various ... parts of Iran's civil society. You have the students, you have the journalists, you have the women, [and] you have the progressive clergy. All of them are coming from different points, but they are uniting on certain issues."

Khatami ran on a campaign platform of giving Iranians greater personal and political liberties, which was heavily supported by younger voters and women. A key campaign promise was to increase what he termed the rule of law in a country where vigilante groups and revolutionary courts have often imposed their own vision of hardline Islamic values on the public.

Nafisi predicts that the current crackdown by conservatives is less likely to quell the increasingly public debate over civil liberties than fan it further. Nafisi:

"[The conservatives] are just reacting to the movement that goes on within the society. I don't think this is going to work ... I think that more and more the Iranian parliament and judiciary is going to discredit itself by the passage of [repressive] laws, and it will also make the issue remain in the society longer. ... So, I think these sort of repressive moves will definitely fuel more debate."

One sign that the Iran may be continuing to move toward a more civil society despite the latest conservative attacks on freedom of speech came this week as parliament took a first vote on a bill to tighten conditions under which religious screening bodies can bar candidates from running in elections.

The parliament -- usually dominated by conservatives -- voted overwhelmingly to require the hardline Guardian Council and other electoral supervisory bodies to state in writing their legal reasons for disqualifying any candidates.

The bill -- which goes to a second vote soon -- comes as Iran heads toward parliamentary elections in February. Many analysts believe the elections will be of key importance in deciding how fast efforts to liberalize Iran's Islamic system will proceed in the future.