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Khatami turns on hardline critics

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, July 21 (Reuters) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies, accused of failing to defend the Islamic system during recent unrest, on Wednesday moved against hardline publications that had challenged him.

The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, firmly under Khatami's control, said it had moved against three newspapers after they published a letter by Revolutionary Guards commanders criticising Khatami and warning their patience with ``insults against the system'' was running out.

The Guards' warning set off alarm bells in some quarters over the threat of a possible coup d'etat.

The ministry said the Guards' letter to the president was classified ``top secret'' and its printing violated the press law. It said it had sent the case to an advisory committee, a prelude to legal action by a press court which can close the dailies.

The move was the first concrete step by the Khatami administration to strike back at its hardline rivals, many of whom have used last week's riots to question the revolutionary credentials of the government and its pro-reform programme.

It also follows the closing by a hardline clerical court this month on similar charges of a leading pro-Khatami daily, which set in motion a series of events culminating last week in some of the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

``The policy of this ministry department is to be equal. What is important is that the press law be put into practice for everyone,'' said a senior culture ministry official.

The ministry did not name the targeted publications, but press officials confirmed the case was aimed at the influential hardline dailies Kayhan and Jomhuri-ye Eslami, as well as a conservative weekly. All three printed the Guards' letter.

Khatami's political faction, led by his brother Reza Khatami, and a leading leftist clerical group attacked the Guards, reminding them that the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had barred the military from interference in factional politics.

``Force is not a suitable solution to social and political problems,'' said the Islamic Iran Participation Front, headed by Reza Khatami.

``The threat that your patience is running a blatant violation and could itself breach security.

``You must know that two years ago Khatami received 20 million votes, and he is still popular because he has been sincere in his promises to voters. To line up against such a big section of the population will deprive you of popular support.''

The leftist League of Militant Clerics, a key Khatami constituency, warned the Guards commanders that any ``impatience'' was a greater threat to the Islamic republic than those sentiments unleashed by Khatami's social and political reforms.

``If there is a threat to supreme clerical rule, it will not be from the rule of law, freedom and democracy. Clerical rule will be harmed by acts of monopoly and violence and disrespect,'' the group said. ``The practice of democracy and freedom and the rule of law will only make society progress.''

The commanders had accused Khatami of being soft on student protesters, some of whom chanted slogans challenging supreme clerical rule during the recent unrest.

The Iranian press, encouraged by President Khatami as a key part of his reform programme, has emerged as one of the central battlegrounds between the reformist government and the conservative clerical establishment.


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