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Iran: Leading Reformist Out Of Jail, But Room For Maneuver Limited

One of Iran's leading reformers, former Interior Minister Abdullah Nuri, is back in the public eye following his early release from prison this month. Nuri riveted Iran when he was tried three years ago on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime, but he used his televised proceedings to argue for liberalizing the political system instead. Now that he is out of jail, Nuri's potential for energizing Iran's reform movement is huge. But his room for maneuver may be limited, making it uncertain how much of his former political power he can regain.

Prague, 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Abdullah Nuri has all the qualities that Iran's hard-liners dread most in a reformer.

He has impeccable revolutionary credentials as a former aide to the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, making him as much of an inside member of the establishment as the most entrenched conservative.

He has served at top levels of government and has been an influential publisher.

And he is a confirmed and highly articulate proponent of a wholesale liberalization of Iran's political system, which, if carried out, would cost the hard-liners most of their power.

So it took many observers by surprise last week when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waived the remaining two years of a five-year jail term to which Nuri was sentenced in November 1999. The charges against Nuri included issuing "propaganda against the Islamic Republic" and "insulting religious sanctities."

Those charges capped a long and ultimately successful campaign by hard-liners to strip Nuri of his post as President Mohammad Khatami's interior minister and to close his highly popular liberal paper "Khordad." The prison sentence also prevented him from winning -- as he had been expected to -- the powerful position of parliamentary speaker after reformists seized control of the parliament in early 2000.

The supreme leader's pardon came after Nuri's brother -- himself a reformist parliamentarian -- died in a car accident. The state news agency IRNA reported that Khamenei released Nuri as a sign of sympathy for the family.

But the supreme leader's pardon stops short of forgiving Nuri of the charges against him or of waving bans on his participation in political activities throughout the term of his sentence.

Nuri's lawyer, Mohsen Rohami, told RFE/RL that unless the supreme leader broadens the terms of the pardon, the bans on Nuri's political activity will remain in force. "Social deprivations [limits on political activities] have to be addressed, too. Otherwise, they will remain intact, and the ban will not be lifted for the duration of the next two years. That might [exclude] him from all political activities unless the pardon granted includes political activities, too," Rohami said.

At the moment, there is little reason to expect the supreme leader to broaden the pardon. Khamenei, who officially remains outside factional battles but is widely seen as supporting the conservatives, was highly critical of Nuri during Nuri's trial.

The supreme leader said at the time that Nuri, though he did not mention him by name, was a respected member of the establishment who had been "deceived" by elements hostile to the regime and needed to be punished to recognize his errors. "When someone, though an insider, makes a mistake and becomes negligent, is deceived and holds grudges, resists the truth and becomes an opponent to the system, the imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] and his traditions and wisdom dictate that [such a person should] reconsider. When the enemy applauds you, you should immediately rectify your actions and repent," Khamenei said.

During Nuri's trial, which was nationally televised, the former interior minister challenged many of the conservatives' most basic tenets, including Tehran's hostile relations with the United States and Israel.

Nuri famously asked why if the Islamic Republic's founder Khomeini was able to make peace with Iraq after an eight-year war in the 1980s, Tehran could not do the same with Washington.

He also said that Iran, which does not recognize Israel, should not be, "more Palestinian than the Palestinians." He asked why, if the Palestinians were willing to make peace with the Israelis, Iran should remain opposed to the Jewish state.

Many of Nuri's defense statements were later published in a best-selling book entitled "Shokaran Eslah," or "Hemlock for an Advocate of Reform."

As Nuri now weighs his options for resuming political life once his full sentence expires in November 2004, one possibility would be to run for president when that election takes place the following year.

But William Samii, an RFE/RL regional analyst, said Nuri's prospects for entering the presidential lists could easily be thwarted by conservatives unless there are significant changes in Iran's electoral system before then.

Samii said Nuri would almost certainly be vetoed by the conservative Guardians Council, which has the power to vet candidates according to vague criteria such as loyalty to the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolution. "The Guardians Council in the past has disqualified people on a wide range of issues, and they are not very transparent in the way they operate. In the case of Nuri, he has been an outspoken critic of many major aspects of the regime, many of its pillars. And these are the very issues which the Guardians Council has claimed against others [to disqualify them]," Samii said.

Nuri is ineligible to run in Iran's next parliamentary elections in early 2004 because they will occur before the expiration of his full sentence.

Another option for Nuri, once his sentence expires, is to resume activities as the publisher of a liberal newspaper. However, as a publisher he would almost certainly face renewed attacks from Iran's hard-line-dominated judiciary, which over the past years has used the courts to close scores of reformist papers and to jail activists.

Often the charges brought by the courts are the same previously brought against Nuri: propagandizing against the Islamic Republic by questioning the decisions of conservative officials.

Some observers feel that instead of returning to publishing, Nuri may decide he can have a stronger impact by remaining outside of the system.

Siyavosh Ardalan is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Persian Service. He said that Nuri is seen by many of his supporters as a principled man who has confronted the establishment to the point of being jailed by it -- something that gives him great credibility as a pro-reform leader. Ardalan said that if Nuri returns to publishing, he would be constrained to operate within narrow limits of debate in order to keep his paper open. But by doing that, he could easily tarnish the reputation he enjoys today. "It seems that if he wants to run another newspaper, the debate that he would want to raise in that newspaper, the issues that he wants to talk about, would have to be within the parameters of the debate within the system. And these are very restricted and limited," Ardalan said.

He continued: "So, within these parameters, if he wants to carry on his publishing role, then probably he will lose that popular base. Many other pro-reform newspapers in the past year have had to observe these rules, regulations, and limits imposed on them by the conservative bodies and that has made them lose much of their circulation and their audience," Ardalan said.

Ardalan predicted that, instead, Nuri may become a somewhat removed figure on the Iranian scene, giving only periodic interviews to make his views known. That could buy him time in hopes that changes in the electoral system will make it possible for him to run for president as a highly popular reformist candidate.

How much success Nuri could have pursuing any of his options -- presidential candidate, publisher, or activist -- will likely be closely tied to the fate of two bills proposed by President Khatami that are now before the parliament.

One bill would specifically reduce the powers of the hard-line Guardians Council to disqualify election candidates through the use of vague criteria interpreted by the council members themselves.

The other bill would clarify the president's power to oversee and punish judges who violate constitutional limits to jail reformists, including through the use of closed-door trials.

The outlines of both bills were recently approved by parliament. But prospects for either bill becoming law are highly uncertain.

Under Iranian parliamentary procedure, the Guardians Council has the power to veto proposed legislation, sending it to a higher body for mediation. Many analysts expect the proposals to end in some kind of last-minute compromise between the conservative and hard-line camps, and the specifics of such an agreement are impossible to foresee.