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Iran: In Iranian Politics, Even Student Plays Are An Issue

Iran has been riveted for months by the case of a student playwright whom hardliners accuse of attacking the nation's religious values. But as a court tries the case this month, there are signs interest is waning and Iran's rival political camps already are moving on to other battles.

Prague, 28 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - When student author Ali Abbas Nemati published a short, satirical play three months ago in a university magazine, he could hardly have imagined it would capture the entire country's attention.

After all, the circulation of the magazine at Amir Kabir University in Tehran is only about 150 copies and most of the readers are other students.

But if the play's debut was modest, it soon became one of the most talked about works in Iran. The reason is that the student author dared to tackle the subject of religion. That is a subject the clerical establishment sees as its preserve alone, and the author soon found himself at center stage in a political fight over freedom of speech.

Hardliners immediately condemned the playwright's discussion of religious subjects as an attack upon religion itself. The allegations included one of the most serious offenses under the Islamic Republic's criminal code: insulting the Twelfth Imam. The penalty for offense to the revered Shi'ite figure -- whose return to Earth is awaited as a time of perfect justice -- is execution.

The offending passage in the play has a character asking the Twelfth Imam to delay his return to Earth until after students' exams are over.

Even before the case went to court, a leading cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Mazaheri, issued a religious edict sentencing the writers and publishers of the play to death. A hardline security chief volunteered to carry out the executions immediately. Order was restored only after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a still higher religious edit forbidding anybody from taking justice into his own hands.

Siavash Ardalan, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Persian Service, says hardliners sought to exploit the case to discredit efforts by Iran's relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami to build a more civil society. Siavash Ardalan:)

"When this play was published in a student newspaper with a very small circulation, the conservative faction decided to distribute it widely and create a row (eds: a disturbance) and touch on the religious sensitivities of the masses and the clergymen and the whole strata of religious groups in order to give the impression that President Khatami is lenient on Islamic issues and religious issues."

But Ardalan says the political attack began to fizzle after Khamenei -- widely seen as a hardline leader -- threw his support to Khatami. Ardalan: "It didn't work, that tactic backfired after the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei expressed his support for the government and said that this whole controversy should not undermine the government."

President Khatami -- who himself is a leading cleric -- also struck back sharply at the hardliners. He condemned the play but said an Islamic system must offer room for competing religious interpretations.

Correspondents say the return to calm was evident as the case went into a first hearing last week. The judge accused the author, three other students, and a professor of plotting to undermine religious values. But he did not call for the death sentence.

At the same time, the author -- sometimes in tears -- tried to tell the court his play was only intended to lampoon those who invoke religion for their own material aims.

Ardalan says that following the first hearing, the case now has largely dropped out of the headlines in Iran. It is likely to go to a second hearing before sentences are handed down, but most observers now predict only light sentences. Ardalan said:

"After this whole issue backfired, it was after that when the [trial] was held. And it was in that atmosphere -- that this case should not be blown out of proportion -- that the trial proceedings started. So, that is why it is expected that it will be not a death sentence but something involving a short prison term or a small financial fine."

Ardalan says the public debate in Iran -- as always sharply divided between hardliners and conservatives -- now looks set to move on to other subjects.

He says both sides are actively seeking issues as a form of campaigning before key parliamentary elections this February. In that jousting, no subject is spared. Even to the point where a student play of 150 copies can -- briefly -- rise to become a national issue.