Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
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Conservatives win battle, but the war goes on

By Azadeh Moaveni

The trial of the liberal cleric and former mayor of Tehran Abdullah Nouri, which ended this week, was not in itself exceptional -- hundreds of Iranian liberals having been dealt with as harshly. What has made Nouri's sentencing to five years in prison a turning point for post-revolutionary Iran is how far and how effectively he had pushed the boundaries of debate in Iran before his conviction.

The Special Clerical Court that tried Nouri had been criticised by liberals for its use of extra-constitutional powers to limit debate and to remove pro-reform politicians from political life, and recently it did exactly that to Nouri, handing down a harsh prison term, barring him from journalistic activities for five years, and imposing a fine of 15 million rials ($5,000) on 27 November.

Nouri was found guilty of having published allegedly sacrilegious articles, of disturbing public opinion, insulting officials, advocating ties with the US, and opposing the teachings of the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Refused bail, Nouri can still appeal against the verdict, but his insistence that the Special Clerical Court is both illegal and unfit to hear his case means that he will not do so. Nouri himself seemed sanguine toward his fate and disdainful of the body that had sentenced him. "I am not unhappy about what I've said," he told Reuters news agency.

Nouri's supporters have called for the verdict to be overturned and would like Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to intervene. Many Iranians believe that the president must now show his hand, but this will be difficult since Khatami has no available constitutional recourse.

The clergy court, which Khatami has refrained from criticising publicly, is not accountable to the country's judiciary.

Nouri's challenge of the establishment's religious values had been as far-reaching as it was fierce, making him an exceptionally tempting target for conservatives. A former interior minister and a close friend of Khatami, he is supported by the same majority of opinion in Iran that elected the president.

As the most senior cleric-politician to fall victim to a purge in the Islamic Republic thus far, Nouri's value as an example to his like-minded colleagues is considerable. Reformists have compared his reform campaign to that initiated by Martin Luther during the European Reformation, and, continuing the analogy, they have depicted his downfall as being the result of an "Inquisition".

Certainly, Nouri had managed to turn a personal assault on what he saw as religious authoritarianism in Iran into an unprecedented broadening of what could be said and thought in the country's otherwise sharply proscribed political culture.

Nouri had lent his public support to the dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussain Ali Montazeri, for example, and many observers believe that Montazeri could challenge the authority of the supreme cleric of the Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were he not sequestered under house arrest. Of all the reformers, Khamenei particularly disapproves of Nouri, many Iranians believe, because of his outspoken criticism of Khamenei's virtually unchecked powers.

For nearly a year now, Nouri, who is 50 years old, has been changing posts in the Iranian political system with dizzying speed. Sacked from the interior ministry, he enjoyed a brief stint as vice-president in Khatami's cabinet before resigning and being elected leader of Tehran City Council, a post he again abandoned to campaign in February's parliamentary elections.

During this period his reformist newspaper Khordad led the campaign for a democratic, pluralistic Islamic republic from the newsstands.

Nouri's supporters had not expected such a harsh sentence, and they now say that a five-year prison term, instead of the expected three, was meted out to ensure that Nouri cannot participate in the next parliament.

The sentence has also sparked protests in Nouri's hometown of Isfahan, where dozens of supporters gathered outside his house demanding his release.

A growing body of Iran's clergy has also thrown its weight behind the cleric, stressing the historical separation that has kept theologians from being too far involved in state power.

While the tactics employed by supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei to remove Nouri from political life are regarded by reformists as having been successful in the short-term, eventually they say that they will fail.

The closure of Khordad was characteristic of these tactics (five pro-reform newspapers having been banned since the election of President Khatami in 1997). Yet the editorial team of Khordad have said they plan to reopen the banned publication under another name.

Nouri's swift removal from court to Tehran's Evin Prison left him no opportunity to talk with the press, and for the time being the mood among Iranian reformists is pessimistic. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a liberal editor also recently sentenced to prison by conservatives, likened Nouri's sentence to a "heart attack" that has sent the reformist cause into intensive care.

However, the conservatives' moves against Nouri suggest that they are taking seriously the prospect of a possible reformist sweep of February's parliamentary elections. For the conservatives, a reformist failure would be a welcome sign of vitality in their own camp on the verge of elections that all agree will determine whether the reformist agenda has a future.

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