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Iran: Conservatives Seek To Silence Key Reformer

The trial in Tehran of leading reformist cleric and publisher Abdollah Nouri highlights a new push by hardliners to hobble liberal candidates ahead of parliamentary elections in February. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In its constant attacks on the liberal press, Iran's conservative camp has rarely tried to catch as big a fish as Abdollah Nouri.

The 50-year-old, mid-ranking cleric was once one of the most trusted aides to the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Today he is a close confidante to Iran's relatively moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and the publisher of the liberal camp's most outspoken newspaper, Khordad.

All of which makes Nouri a reformer whom Iran's hardliners consider one of their most dangerous and redoubtable opponents.

As a key player in Khatami's drive to make Iran a more open society, Nouri used his previous position as interior minister to permit protests by liberal students. After the conservative-dominated parliament stripped him of the Interior Ministry post, Khatami appointed him as a vice president. Nouri has since been elected to a key post in Tehran's city government and now is considered the leading liberal candidate for the parliamentary elections on February 18.

The hardliners opened the latest round of their long battle with Nouri when he appeared, as ordered, last week before a Special Court for the Clergy in Tehran. The court, a conservative bastion, has long been used by hardliners to punish fellow clerics they deem disloyal to the Islamic Revolution.

The charges laid against Nouri are not minor. They fill a 44-page indictment and range from insulting the country's religious leadership to defaming late spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He is also accused of using his newspaper to promote restoring ties with the United States.

As the court has met intermittently since Saturday, Nouri has shown no signs of being cowed. Instead, he has told the court's judge and jury -- who are all clerics -- that it is they, and not he, who have betrayed the revolution. He also said that he rejects the court's authority to try the case. The court was originally created by decree by Ayatollah Khomeini to root out counter-revolutionaries, not by the Islamic Republic's constitution.

But despite the serious accusations traded so far, analysts say the key issue in the trial is not likely to be the validity of the court's charges or even the court's legality. Instead, the outcome of the trial will depend most of all on whether the conservatives dare use their control of the clerical court to punish their opponent.

Many analysts believe that the special court will convict Nouri and that the sentence could include a suspended prison term. William Samii, a regional specialist with RFE/RL:

"It is possible...that they will pass a jail sentence, but then, perhaps because of the man's standing as a cleric and his revolutionary credentials, they will suspend the sentence and instead bar him from publishing and writing."

Samii says that would meet the conservatives' most important short-term goals. One is giving Nouri a criminal conviction, which would disqualify him as a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The other is clearing the way to silence his outspoken newspaper, Khordad.

But the long-term political costs for the conservatives of convicting Nouri could be high. Samii says a conviction ahead of the legislative polls risks showing a spirit of intolerance, which could cause voters to move toward other reformist candidates.

"I think it will, in a way, bring attention to the cause of the reformists. It will help underline the fact that the hardliners who are in positions of power are really acting against the general interest and desires of the Iranian public."

But Samii says that the extent to which reform-minded candidates will be able to fully participate in the parliamentary elections has yet to be determined. Under Iranian law, the eligibility of all candidates has to be vetted and approved by a conservative-led Council of Guardians. How actively the Council will obstruct reformist candidates is another issue Iran's two camps will likely battle over in the near future.

The trial of Nouri comes as the latest offensive in a wave of recent court attacks by conservatives on reformist newspaper editors, reporters, student protesters and clerics ahead of the parliamentary polls. A major recent blow was the banning from publishing of another leading liberal cleric, Mohammad Mossavi-Khoeniha, who headed the influential Salam newspaper. Many analysts see that case as a precedent for the Nouri trial.

But so far the court actions seem to have done little to discourage other reformists from carrying on in place of those convicted. And that could make the recent spate of hardline crackdowns -- even against such key liberal figures as Abdollah Nouri -- highly uncertain victories.