27 April - 3 May 2000
Issue No. 479
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Wielding 'the hammer of revolution'By Azadeh Moaveni
Political crises in the Islamic Republic of Iran, complete with massive rallies, fiery rhetoric and nationwide mood swings, have a habit of dissipating as quickly and inexplicably as they spring up.
Not so this week, as the country grew increasingly tense after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's unprecedentledly harsh rhetorical attack on the reformist press was followed just days later by the closure of 13 reformist publications.
The simultaneous escalation on several political fronts -- the crackdown on the liberal press, the annulment of several reformist victory election results and the furore over a German conference attended by key reformist personalities -- has electrified the political atmosphere in Tehran. Rarely since the 1979 revolution, say both seasoned political observers and ordinary people, has such a threatening sense of volatility gripped the country.
Reformists consider the closures, ordered by the Tehran judiciary on 23 April, an unlawful attempt by hardliners to provoke a chaotic political crisis that could permanently delay the opening of the new, reformist-dominated parliament in May. Though worried by the blow, reformist editors are now accustomed to seeing their journalists jailed and their publications shut down.
The magnitude of the crackdown, they say, is intended to lure people into the streets as a pretext for a repeat of last summer's student's rioting. "But this is a trap we will avoid," said Ali Hekmat, the editor of Fath, one of the most prominent of the closed dailies.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, lashed out at pro-reform press during a rally held in Tehran last week. A few days later, authorities ordered the closure of 13 newspapers
Before the closures raised a tense week to fever pitch, President Mohamed Khatami and his reformist supporters had countered each of the conservative moves with an equally aggressive reaction. Each faction appears increasingly disinclined to tolerate behaviour reserved by the other as its right. For the hard-liners, it is the exercise of unilateral control over government bodies that answer to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Reformists consider it their right to demand accountability for such political manoeuvring and criticise its political fallout.
On 16 April, the Revolutionary Guard made its impatience public with a statement threatening the reformist press: "When the time comes, small and big enemies will feel the revolutionary hammer on their skulls." The guard went on to accuse the newspapers of attacking revolutionary values "along the line of foreign demands." The guard, whose 150,000 strong force is regarded as having divided political loyalties, has been implicated by the reformist press in political violence against the president's supporters.
The reformists were having none of it. Deriding the guard's posturing as a "childish dream," the Islamic Revolution Mujahidin Organisation, a reformist party close to the president, said a "power mafia" of hard-liners was plotting a coup to prevent the sixth parliament from convening as planned at the end of May.
With conservatives having captured only 50 of the 295 seats in the parliamentary elections, the Council of Guardians has not yet ratified the first round or confirmed the second and has also annulled the results of 10 reformist-won seats in the provinces. Reformists believe that the annulments are a strategic move to offset the huge margin of the conservative loss, since an outright cancellation of the entire vote would probably lead to street unrest, which is not in the interest of either faction. But according to the Constitution, Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh has pointed out, the Council of Guardians must provide evidence for any electoral annulment.
The reformists' conviction that a political agenda underlies the annulments was fuelled by a public debacle involving the state-controlled media, prominent reformist personalities and the most salacious footage aired on television in recent years. National television this week broadcast edited footage of a conference in Berlin entitled 'Iran after the elections,' which juxtaposed scenes of opposition Iranian exiles impiously disrobing and a dancing, scantily-clad woman, with impassioned speeches of seemingly sanguine reformists. The reformist camp denounced the broadcast as a politically-motivated move to incite public opinion against their proposed reform, termed 'American-style' by the hard-line conservatives on account of the reform movement's increasingly secular strain that also promotes improved relations with the United States.
Puzzled Iranians discussed the broadcast, replayed more than once, all week, titillated as much by the sudden appearance of uncovered hair and bare arms on state television as the tension building up within the establishment. The conference participants were summoned by a revolutionary court and a leading cleric instructed the population at large to "kill [them] wherever you see them." At a hard-line rally protesting against the conference, chants of "death to mercenary writers" were widely interpreted as targeting Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist who had taken part in the Berlin conference and was arrested on 22 April. He has been branded an "apostate" by hard-line clerics.
On Sunday Iran's hard-line press court also announced that leading reformist editor Emadeddin Baqi would go on trial on 1 May. He was indicted earlier this month on charges that included "acting against state security and insulting religious values," which are the charges most commonly brought against reformers by hard-liners. The accusations against him stem from articles he wrote alleging that the establishment had a role in the murders of dissidents.
The supreme leader's 20 April castigation of the reformist press set the strident tone for the rest of the week. Accusing 10-15 newspapers of having turned into "enemy bases" guided by "one centre," Khamenei said the new "press charlatanism" was undermining the country and the revolution. With both reformists and hard-liners mining for ideological support in the leader's rhetoric, Khamenei's signals have never seemed so inscrutably unpredictable.
This delicate juncture elicited from Khatami the kind of bold defence that his supporters have often hoped for but have rarely seen. The president criticised state television's broadcast of the conference, warned against the dangers of despotism and argued that the absence of tolerance encourages public pessimism about the government's performance.