Uncivil Wars

Iranian liberals counted on the new parliament to help free the reformist press.  Ayatollah Khamenei had other ideas.
August 14, 2000 —
Ever since reformist candidates dealt them a crushing defeat in February’s parliamentary elections, Iranian conservatives have used their dominance of the judiciary, the security forces, the intelligence services, and other vital levers of power to counter-attack on several fronts. Throughout this period, the reformists kept calm because they believed they would have the upper hand when they occupied the Majles (parliament).

This strategy backfired on Sunday, August 6, when Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, forbade the Majles to consider a new bill that would have rolled back harsh press curbs passed in the final days of the previous, conservative-majority Majles. The current press law gives the courts, which are dominated by conservatives, the power to close newspapers summarily and to determine who may own and work for a particular paper.

The proposed law would have made it more difficult for hard-liners to prosecute journalists for their work, since it made publishers, not individual journalists, liable for published material. But in a letter to Majles speaker Mehdi Karubi that was read out to deputies and entered into the parliamentary record, Khamenei ruled that the bill was not legitimate and would threaten Iran’s security.

Shocked deputies
The announcement shocked reformist deputies, who had expected the press bill to pass with little opposition. Shouting matches and scuffles broke out between reformist and conservative members, forcing the speaker to turn off the microphones and demand order. Sixty reformist members of the 290-seat house walked out in protest. Parliament officials then expelled journalists from the Majles and confiscated their film and videotape.

On Tuesday, August 8, Karubi told deputies to consider the debate on press amendments over, according to a Farsi-language report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Karubi said the deputies had carried out their constitutional and religious duty to obey “the honorable leader’s decree.”

The writing had been on the wall since at least the previous Thursday, when Khamenei urged Majles deputies to focus on economic development instead of political reform. In a meeting with senior officials, including the reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, and the head of the judiciary, Khamenei said that any proposed reforms should be compatible with Iran’s Islamic system of government.

Although Khamenei and Khatami are generally portrayed as political opposites, their relationship is more complex. The president’s father was Khamenei’s mentor, and in his impoverished youth, Khamenei lived with the Khatamis for a time in the central province of Yazd. Old personal ties may partly explain why Khamenei has avoided open conflict with Khatami, and has even praised Khatami as a “good Muslim.” But Khamenei has also given ammunition to hard-liners, endorsing their judicial crackdown on the pro-Khatami press and describing reformers as lackeys of foreign powers.

Khamenei’s August 6 surprise attack showed that the supreme leader was determined to keep the reformists at bay, which meant ensuring that the generally conservative Iranian judiciary retained its power to silence reformist voices in the press. This reflects the vital role that newspapers have come to play in the bitter struggle to determine Iran’s political future.

The good old days
Khatami’s 1997 election engendered a vibrant and independent press. For a while, criticism and opposition were tolerated. Liberal journalists took the country’s hard-line clerical leaders to task for their undemocratic behavior, for encouraging their supporters to use violence, and for being out of touch with the people. Hard-liners were the butt of many cartoons and satirical articles. Above all, the liberal press exposed the murders of numerous liberal dissidents, pointing the finger at the Islamic establishment and the intelligence apparatus.

In a country with no formal political parties, newspapers functioned as surrogate parties–each with its own platform–in the liveliest debate about democracy that Iran had ever seen. And while conservatives controlled the national radio and television broadcasting corporation, print media emerged as the primary battleground between reformists and conservatives.

Reformist journalists have faced a barrage of judicial harassment and censorship over the last two years. The infamous Press Court, charged with prosecuting alleged crimes committed in the press and headed by the notorious conservative judge Said Mortazavi, has closed newspapers and sentenced journalists to long prison terms in its quest to stifle all dissenting political voices in Iranian media.

In April of this year, Khamenei announced that certain unnamed publications had become “bases for the enemy.” The judiciary took this as its cue to launch an unprecedented crackdown on the pro-reform press. Within a few days, authorities banned 16 leading reformist newspapers. Since then, at least eight journalists have been jailed (joining at least two others already imprisoned before Khamenei’s April tirade) and another eight newspapers have been shut down, bringing the total number of banned publications to 24. All but one were pro-reform.

Cautious resistance
Journalist Hamidreza Jalaipur told the New York Times that he and his colleagues still have no choice other than caution. But he said new publications would continue to appear in an effort to test the boundaries of political freedom. “Newspapers and journalists will continue to publish under new licenses and different names every time they are shut down,” he said.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president’s brother and the leader of the reform faction in the Majles, told Reuters last week that the prospects for reform remained limited despite his bloc’s claim of up to 216 MPs in the house. “In Iran, being a majority does not necessarily bring power. If we wish to reform everything overnight, then undoubtedly our wishes will not come true,” he said. There also appeared to be a split between moderates who want to find a compromise with hard-liners and the more radical factions who want to rigorously pursue reforms.

“Challenging the leader’s guidelines and wishes is as irrational as using his prudent and wise remarks for personal gains and considerations,” said the reformist, English-language paper Iran Daily in an editorial. “The only way out is to be patient, logical and law-abiding in all spheres. It is a national and Islamic obligation.” But other reformists were in no mood for compromise. Ahmad Pour-Nejati, for example, resigned as head of the Majles’ Cultural Committee, which had helped draft the new press-law amendments, to protest Khamenei’s edict.

A more radical outburst came from Mohammad Rashidian, an MP who challenged Khamenei’s decision to quash parliamentary debate on the press law. In remarks from the floor of the Majles that were broadcast live on national radio Sunday, Rashidian referred to Khamenei as Mr. Khamenei, without the title ayatollah, and implied that the religious leader was not acting in accordance with Islamic law.

The conservative reaction was swift. Two days later, on August 8, thousands of hard-liners gathered outside Parliament shouting: “Traitor Rashidian must be executed!” They also demanded that pro-reform legislators be expelled from the Majles.

What the people want
At the height of the press crackdown last spring, the reformist leaders urged their supporters to stay calm, arguing that any violent outburst would give hard-liners an excuse to cancel the election results. They promised that the new parliament would overturn the press law and other restrictions enacted by its predecessor. But now that Khamenei has effectively foreclosed this option, it not clear how much longer people who voted for Khatami are going to tolerate the president’s inability to bring about the social and economic changes that he has been promising for the past three years. Many of Khatami’s supporters may resort to violent outbursts in the belief that they have nothing more to lose.

A more dangerous threat to the reform movement will be people’s growing apathy toward the whole political process. Disillusioned with Khatami, many Iranians already plan to boycott next year’s presidential elections.