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Iran: Reformists Threaten To Leave Government Over Pollster Trials

The trials in Tehran of pollsters who found that most Iranians favor dialogue with the United States is turning into a widening political crisis as hard-liners use the case to attack powerful reformist leaders. The crisis heightened this week as Iran's largest reformist party threatened to stage a mass walkout from the government if the hard-liners do not ease their pressure.

Prague, 3 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's reformist camp has often voiced a sense of general frustration as rival hard-liners have used their dominance of the courts to block change and jail outspoken liberals.

But in recent months, the reformists' anger has grown more specific as they issue repeated threats to withdraw from the government if the hard-liners do not scale back their attacks.

The reformists made that threat again this week as the leader of the main reform party in parliament, the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP), said a mass walkout may be the only option the reformists have left.

IIPP leader Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, said that, "even if such an option [to leave government] is a bad one, it appears inevitable when compared to other options that are even worse."

He did not spell out what the worse options might be. But one certainly must be for reformers to stand idle as the judiciary continues arresting the movement's leaders. That is something the courts have been doing regularly ever since conservatives launched a counterattack against President Khatami's allies three years ago.

The arrests have picked up speed in the past months as the judiciary has cracked down on reformist-led polling institutes that conducted a survey in September showing most Iranians favor talks with Washington to ease U.S.-Iranian tensions.

Among eight people tried so far for participating in or publishing the survey are Behruz Geranpayeh, the head of the state-controlled National Institute for Research and Opinion Polls. He was charged with "propagating lies to excite public opinion."

Geranpayeh's lawyer, Ramazan Haji-Mashhadi, recently told the U.S. Persian-language broadcast service Radio Farda that his client is innocent of all charges. "Geranpayeh has denied the accusations and called his action mere opinion polling, which is purely scientific research," Haji-Mashhadi said.

The survey, which was commissioned by the reformist-led parliament, angered hard-liners because the results supported arguments by some reformists that Tehran and Washington could benefit from discussing their differences. Hard-liners have termed any such suggestions "weakness" in the face of U.S. pressure. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei specifically ruled out talks after Washington last year branded Tehran part of an "axis of evil" over charges it supports terrorism and seeks nuclear weapons.

Other pollsters on trial include Abbas Abdi, co-founder of the Ayandeh Research Institute and a prominent member of the IIPP. Abdi is known outside Iran as one of the leaders of a group of students who took U.S. diplomats hostage in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, provoking Washington to freeze Iranian assets and sever diplomatic ties.

In their trials, three of the pollsters have admitted to "mistakes," including contact with U.S. polling agencies, something hard-liners have called evidence of intended espionage. But the pollsters' lawyers say their clients' mistakes were not intentional. "Although [Geranpayeh] admitted to making some mistakes, his overall defense appeared to be strong. The public prosecutor's allegations, such as [that Geranpayeh] collected intelligence for dissemination to foreigners, seemed unfounded or at least lacked evidence," Haji-Mashhadi said.

The IIPP has criticized the trials as politically motivated. It also has criticized the judiciary for holding the accused in solitary confinement and holding parts of the trials behind closed doors.

The crisis over the polling institutes looks set to widen after the judiciary last month also charged a reformist parliamentarian with helping the pollsters publish their survey. The lawmaker, Ahmad Burqani, was charged with "illegally spending state funds" for providing some $25,000 to Geranpayeh's National Institute for Research and Opinion Polls. Burqani has said the funding was in line with official procedures and has denied any wrongdoing.

Many reformists view the arrests of the pollsters as a deliberate effort by hard-liners to close the few remaining avenues by which reformists can still publicize opinions critical of conservative positions. The offensive against the polling institutes follows the judiciary's already successful closure of almost all liberal newspapers over the past several years.

Reformist leaders now pin many of their hopes for defending themselves against hard-line attacks upon a legislative bill proposed by President Khatami late last year. The bill would strengthen the president's powers to oversee the judiciary and punish judges who overstep their constitutional limits, for example, by convicting reformists in closed-door trials or based upon flimsy evidence.

Abdi and several other radical reformers have called for reformists to leave the government if Khatami's initiative is blocked by hard-line officials. The bill has won general approval in parliament but still must complete a lengthy vetting process by a watchdog body dominated by hard-liners that has the power to reject it, something that would send the bill on to a higher-level arbitration council for a final decision.

It is unclear how the arbitration council, or Supreme Leader Khamenei, may ultimately regard the effort to curb the power of the hard-liners, who control not only the judiciary but the state media and the military. Khamenei is widely seen as favoring the conservatives but has also sought to balance Iran's feuding factions, often calling upon all sides to overcome their differences in the interest of national unity.