Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Positioning for the poll

By Azadeh Moaveni

The recent sentencing of former Iranian interior minister, Abdullah Nouri, to five years in prison on charges of sedition marked an escalation in judicial proceedings against the reformist camp in Iran. In a parallel move, the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his 17 December Friday sermon to attack the liberal camp. Though the country's top leader, Khamenei, has long denounced internal challenges to clerical rule, on this occasion he abandoned the oblique references of the past and attacked the reformists directly, accusing them of being the tools of America and Israel and aiming to undermine the Iranian nation.

"Our enemies call these acts of sabotage reforms," Khamenei said during the weekly sermon, which was broadcast on state radio. "The enemy is talking through unaware people, such as an uninformed and duped cleric, an emotional student, or even a revolutionary person who has not properly recognised the enemy."

Khamenei's attack, while specifically including supporters of President Mohamed Khatami and pro-reform newspapers, spared Khatami himself.

His comments, coming in the wake of Nouri's jailing, have been widely seen as part of an attempted conservative consolidation of control before the 18 February parliamentary elections. Nouri, the leading reformist candidate, had been expected to lead the movement to electoral victory before his recent sentencing.

On Saturday a court refused a request by Nouri's lawyer to free him temporarily so he could register as a candidate for the elections. Though Nouri had initially said he would not appeal against the verdict, his lawyer recently requested an appeal from the presiding judge. It will be virtually impossible for Nouri to run in the elections if his appeal is unsuccessful, though he has nevertheless attempted to put himself forward at the polls.

While the powerful liberal's electoral ambitions have been thwarted by his prison sentence, an equally powerful conservative candidate, the former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has recently registered to run as a candidate in the elections.

Since stepping down from power, Rafsanjani has remained a key figure in Iranian politics and his candidacy is expected to be successful. Unpopular with liberals and pro-reform students, who suspect him of capitalising on Nouri's marginalisation, Rafsanjani is considered by observers as being less of a conservative and more of a pragmatist seeking to maintain his political relevance.

Before serving as president, Rafsanjani was speaker of parliament, and analysts have suggested that Rafsanjani ensured the freedom of the elections that swept Khatami to power. Had Khatami's opponent on this occasion, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, won as expected, the conservative alliance then formed with Khamenei might have left Rafsanjani sidelined. With the reformist Khatami as president, however, Rafsanjani was made head of the "Expediency Council", a powerful body that mediates in constitutional disputes.

Although Rafsanjani may now figure prominently in elections that the liberals had hoped to dominate, neither Nouri nor the pro-reform students who support him have been cowed by his conviction. Between 3,000-7,000 students rallied in Nouri's support outside Tehran University on 13 December, chanting "Freedom fighter Nouri should be released," the Office for Consolidation and Unity, the best-organised student reformist group, having called for the protest, challenging Khamenei and accusing the Special Clergy Court that tried Nouri of being unconstitutional.

President Khatami meanwhile has always emphasised the students' right to protest, and he recently encouraged them to play an active part in the forthcoming elections.

This recent protest was the largest student show of support for Khatami's reforms since the July demonstrations, which led to rioting and the worst unrest Iran had seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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