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Iran's Reformers Renew Claim to Mantle of Change

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's reformist majority in parliament, under counter-attack from clerical conservatives, issued an open letter to the nation Sunday reaffirming its claim to the mantle of political and social change.

A week after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened to kill debate on a proposed relaxation of press curbs, centerpiece of the reform agenda in the new parliament, 148 deputies signed a pledge to pursue their program.

The MPs, comprising more than half the 290-seat chamber, also denounced their conservative rivals and charged them with exploiting last week's crisis over the press bill in order to paint the reform movement as anti-clerical and un-Islamic.

``We will do all that is in our power to carry out our legal duties,'' said the letter, read aloud by Mohammad Qomi, a veteran MP from Varamin, southwest of Tehran.

``The bill to reform the press law was prepared according to legal criteria to create better grounds for free press activities, but its removal from parliament's agenda after the leader's letter was used as a pretext by the opponents of reform to take revenge.''

Khamenei's intervention prompted two days of angry rallies outside parliament by hard-liners who branded the reform movement as opposed to Iran's revolutionary and Islamic values.

Warning To Conservatives

Several pro-reform MPs who had backed the press law changes at a tumultuous public session after Khamenei's move have found themselves singled out for criticism in Friday prayer sermons and in the conservative press.

``We, your representatives, are absolutely sure that the recent commotion will not have any adverse effect in your will for reform,'' the reformists' letter said.

``As your representatives we warn the reactionary and opportunist currents to cease their unsuccessful attempts to make the nation lose faith in reform.''

The broad reform movement emerged from recent parliamentary elections with a strong public mandate. Reform leaders estimate they can summon as many as 216 MPs to back some of their agenda.

But the limits of parliament's powers were put on full display on August 6 by Khamenei's unexpected and forceful intervention. Under Iran's Islamic constitution, the leader has final say on matters of state.

The move, which killed press reform for the time being, also gave the green light to a renewed crackdown on independent media.

Crackdown Picks Up Speed

Since Khamenei's letter to deputies warning that reform of the press threatened Islam and the revolution, hard-liners in control of the judiciary have closed the last major pro-reform daily and imprisoned more editors and journalists.

The conservative-led Press Court jailed award-winning satirist Ebrahim Nabavi at the weekend, and another reformist journalist was expected to be jailed Sunday, pending trial.

The same court has summoned the publisher of a short-lived weekly to appear Wednesday.

Two dozen pro-reform publications have been closed since April, when the judiciary first ordered the mass closure of the independent press.

That campaign began after Khamenei publicly identified leading reformist publications as ``bases of the enemy.''

However, a public opinion survey by the ministry of culture, the key patron of the independent press, shows that most Iranians do not agree newspapers should be closed for alleged insults to Islamic values.

Rather, most regular newspaper readers who were surveyed blamed ``factionalism'' for the newspaper bans and they called on President Mohammad Khatami, himself a former newspaper publisher, to do more to protect the publications.


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