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With Iran's Reforms at Stake, a Moderate Digs In

The New York Times
October 24, 1999

TEHERAN, Iran -- Eight months after winning more votes than any other candidate in Teheran's municipal elections, Abdullah Nouri, a key figure in Iran's Islamic reform movement, has been spending much of his time in recent days closeted with his lawyers.

Together, they have been working on strategies for a trial next week at which they will attempt to save the newspaper Nouri controls from court-ordered closure, and Nouri from what could be a lengthy prison term. Beyond that, they hope, by winning Nouri's acquittal, to protect the reform movement from a setback that could undermine its prospects of winning crucial parliamentary elections next February.

Nouri is a confidant of President Mohammad Khatami, probably Khatami's most important ally. Both men are Muslim clerics with political pedigrees that go back to the Islamic revolution of 1979, when they were trusted lieutenants of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the upheaval that ousted the Shah. Now, they lead the May 23 Movement, a coalition that aims at bringing democracy and tolerance to the harsh system of Islamic rule they helped build.

Nouri, 50, and Khatami, 53, are considered apostates by extreme Islamic conservatives, some of whom have threatened publicly to kill those they consider "enemies of Islam." Khatami goes nowhere without an elaborate security entourage, but Nouri, since being ousted from Khatami's Cabinet by conservatives last year, must provide for his own safety. Since he was indicted last week by the Special Court for the Clergy, a powerful, conservative-controlled body that meets in closed session to consider cases involving clerics, he has gone nowhere without bodyguards.

But instead of bowing before conservative attempts to silence him, he has gone on the offensive, saying things that seem unlikely to help him when his trial begins next Wednesday. At a meeting with students at the University of Science and Technology in Teheran on Monday, he described his indictment as illegal and politically motivated. Then, using an analogy that seemed certain to enrage his critics, he compared their tactics unfavorably with those of the Shah, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, who fled Iran in 1979 and died in exile.

"As soon as one speaks of freedom, these gentlemen raise the issue of depravity," he said, referring to the conservatives. "If freedom is the propagation of depravity, then there was much more freedom under the Shah."

At his trial, Nouri will face the most serious charges leveled against any Muslim cleric since the Islamic takeover. He has been accused of using Khordad, his newspaper, to insult the Muslim Prophet, Mohammed, and his direct descendants, the imams who are Shiite Muslims' principal saints. He is accused as well of insulting Ayatollah Khomeini, of backing banned political parties that want a secular Iran, and of "propagating" in support of Iran seeking friendly ties with its two main adversaries, the United States and Israel.

If found guilty, Nouri faces certain imprisonment, and the closure of Khordad, a pro-reform newspaper that has so far survived a crackdown in which four pro-reform newspapers have been closed by the conservative-controlled press court in the last 12 months. But Nouri's associates say the real purpose is broader. By punishing Nouri, they say, conservatives aim to halt growing defections among the clergy to the reformers, thereby consolidating the clerical hierarchy that inherited the Shah's authoritarian powers.

A guilty verdict, or even a decision by the court not to reach a verdict, would bar Nouri from political life, and thus prevent him from organizing the reformers' campaign, and from being a candidate in the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for Feb. 18. With Nouri excluded, reformers would lose their biggest vote-getter, and the man most likely, after a reform victory, to take the powerful post of parliamentary speaker from Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the conservative who lost the 1997 presidential election to Khatami.

Many Iranians believe that reformers are poised to repeat their two previous election successes -- the 1997 presidential vote, which Khatami won with 69 percent of the vote, and elections in February of this year for 200,000 seats on village, town and city councils, which reformers swept by a similar margin in the popular vote. But conservatives, responding with increased efforts to weaken, discredit and frighten reformers, have made no secret of their determination to use all means available to avoid losing control of the 270-seat Parliament.

Khatami and his associates have long been beleaguered. Last year, a popular Teheran Mayor with close links to the President, Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, was sentenced to five years in jail and a lifetime ban from politics at a corruption trial that many Iranians saw as a political vendetta. In June 1998, Nouri, then the Interior Minister, was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. In May this year, the Culture Minister, Ataollah Mohajerani, another cleric, narrowly survived impeachment by parliamentary conservatives angry at his failure to control pro-reform newspapers.

In February, Mohsen Kadivar, another dissident cleric, was imprisoned on the clergy court's orders on charges of "defaming Islam," in part by writing a newspaper article in which he compared the authoritarian society favored by the conservatives with the rule of the Shah.

In July, police and vigilante gangs attacked University of Teheran students protesting the closing of a pro-reform newspaper, killing at least one and possibly three students, injuring scores of others and ransacking a university dormitory. Dozens of students, possibly hundreds, remain under arrest.

But for reformers, perhaps the most threatening conservative move ahead of the parliamentary vote has been the threat to use another powerful body, the Council of Guardians, to use a religious test to disqualify large numbers of reform candidates. The council, which has made sweeping use of the power in past elections, recently vetoed a new law that would have curbed its power by requiring it to give written reasons for rejecting candidates, heightening reformers' concerns.

The battle over who can run in the parliamentary elections is not likely to be settled before January, when nominations close. Much may depend on the attitude of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme religious leader, who has sweeping executive powers that far exceed Khatami's. Earlier this month, Khamenei, hitherto considered the conservatives' main standard-bearer, stunned the country by calling Khatami a "pious man" and urging conservatives not to block his efforts for "the rebirth of Islam."

Iranians were left to wonder whether Khamenei had a change of heart, or made the speech to allay reformers' concerns while conservatives work through bodies like the clergy court, the press court and the Guardians' Council to consolidate their power. The indictment of Nouri, less than two weeks after Khamenei's speech, has done little to encourage optimism that the religious leader was sincere.

Mohajerani, the Culture Minister, has said he feared the worst from the Nouri trial. "I'm not optimistic," he said. Khatami seemed to voice his own dismay when he spoke recently to a youth gathering in Teheran.

Calling for a world free of "discrimination, despotism and lies," he said there would always be people, in every society, who would oppose change. "Unfortunately, there are people who will always want to protect their own power and wealth and privilege by erecting barriers against others," he said.


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