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Iran: Reformist Deputies Step Up Criticism Of Hard-Line Establishment

Several of Iran's pro-reform deputies have recently stepped up their criticism of the country's hard-line establishment. A reformist lawmaker in an open session of parliament blamed the hard-liners for Iran's international reputation for supporting terrorist groups and for political oppression. He accused the hard-liners of jailing journalists, intellectuals, and students and for the killing of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Analysts say that, ahead of February parliamentary polls, the reformists may be trying to regain their popularity and ensure their re-election.

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This is not the first time that Iranian reformist deputies have used the parliament as a platform for criticizing the conservative establishment. But recent comments made by the pro-reform lawmaker Ahmad Shirzad were harsh enough to make even other pro-reformists uneasy.

Shirzad said the ruling hard-liners are responsible for Iran's international reputation as a supporter of terrorist groups and as an oppressive regime that aims to possess weapons of mass destruction.

In reference to the slogans repeated by the country's leaders over the last two decades, the reformist lawmaker said: "We [Iranians] have always claimed that we are the world spiritual leaders and all deprived people of the world have their hope in us. But they [the conservative mullahs] have given us the image of a violent, suppressive, unpopular, and militarized regime which does not put up with any criticism."

Other reformist lawmakers have also spoken out harshly against the conservatives, who control many tools of power such as the judiciary, the armed forces, and the broadcast media.

Reformist lawmaker Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeini, speaking at a student gathering, criticized the unlimited power of Iran's supreme leader. Criticism of the supreme Leader is rare in reformist political discourse.

And Fatemeh Haghighatjou, an outspoken female lawmaker, called for a referendum as the only way to make the regime accountable.

Analyst Ghassem Shoaleh Saadi, a university professor in Tehran and a former member of parliament, says that by harshly criticizing the hard-liners, the reformist lawmakers are trying to win back the support of voters ahead of February parliamentary polls.

"The city council elections showed that people have lost their faith in the reformists and -- especially in these times where there is lots of talk about civil disobedience -- the assumption is that people will not participate in the parliamentary elections either. Therefore, [the reformists think] these efforts can encourage people to participate in the elections," Shoaleh Saadi says.

In the March 2003 city-council elections the turnout was very low, only about 20 percent. Many observers have seen that as an indication of growing frustration with the apparent inability of the reform movement to bring about change in the face of resistance from the conservative establishment.

RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Siavash Ardalan says that it has been very difficult for the reformists to get their message to the people through the liberal press, which has been largely closed in crackdowns by the hard-line-led judiciary.

"The atmosphere of fear and intimidation is so overwhelming among reformist circles that even many of the pro-reform newspapers affiliated with some of these deputies who are making outspoken speeches refuse to carry out those messages in their entirety. So in a sense, even though ever since the landslide election of President [Mohammad] Khatami the reformists have been able to voice their criticism in unprecedented ways, nevertheless the conservative crackdown has given these reformists pause in being able to spread their message [to] the public and especially at these times where their failed promises have made the public extremely skeptical of much of the messages they are trying to put through," Ardalan says.

Ardalan adds that only a small portion of the population today is aware of the harsh criticism the reformists make of the hard-liners: "It's not at all certain whether such speeches will ever reach the public ear and unless you [have] Internet or you're listening to short-wave broadcast coming out from countries like the United states, it's very difficult to keep in touch with this tug-of-war between both factions."

Even if the reformists manage to get their message to the people, analysts say the unelected Guardians Council will disqualify many of their high-profile candidates and prevent them from running in future elections. The Guardians Council has already established oversight committees across the country.

Former lawmaker Shoaleh Saadi says the reformists are expressing their anger over the future disqualification process: "The assumption is that the conservatives will -- in all seriousness -- try to block the re-election of the reformist MPs to the parliament. Therefore they [the reformists] are angry and they want to use this last opportunity as much as they can against the conservatives -- in a way, they want to express their anger."

On 26 November, about 800 conservatives staged an angry protest outside Shirzad's office, breaking windows and throwing mud on walls and doors. Even reformist parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karubbi charged Shirzad with making serious charges against the Islamic system. Mohammad Shirzad himself denied the allegation and said he still considers himself a true son of the Islamic Revolution.

Last year, a reformist lawmaker was jailed for criticizing the judiciary. However, he was released after weeks of protest by reformist MPs. After that, other outspoken MPs were also sentenced to jail but not imprisoned.

The judiciary has so far not reacted to Shirzad's strong speech.

Correspondent Ardalan says it is difficult to predict the judiciary's reaction, given the decline in the reformists' fortunes: "As the time for the parliamentary election draws near and the reformists know that their chances for repeating the same landslide victory that they did four years ago are very dim, it's not at all certain how the judiciary would want to react to these people -- whether they would like to summon them and crack down on them or just let them exhaust themselves until the parliamentary elections, [in which] their chances for entering the next parliament would be very dim."

In reaction to Shirzad's speech, a conservative lawmaker said: "If such radical outbursts against the system continues, we should not be surprised if the people hang some of the traitor lawmakers before the parliament building."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.