By Geneive Abdo, in Tehran
August 7, 2000
The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the reformist
parliament yesterday to abandon its promise to expand freedom of speech
and revive the banned progressive press. It was seen as a step toward
re-asserting clerical rule over participatory democracy.
Ayatollah Khamenei's action runs counter to the hopes of millions whose
votes in February's general election sent to parliament a majority of reformists
who had run on platforms including a free press.
Using his powers to intervene in the legislative process, the ayatollah
issued a letter to the 290 MPs concerning a new bill meant to amend the
restrictive press law. When the letter was read aloud in the chamber, scuffles
broke out on the floor.
"If the enemies infiltrate the press, this will be a big danger
to the country's security and the people's religious beliefs," he
"I do not deem it right to keep silent . . . The bill is not legitimate
and not in the interest of the system and the revolution."
Iranians have been waiting to see when and how the conservative establishment
would try to use its overwhelming power to challenge republican rule.
Under the constitution, the supreme leader, who is appointed by a body
of conservative clerics, has the final say in all matters of state. But
it came as a surprise that Ayatollah Khamenei intervened in such a blatant
and public way.
Some MPs voiced outrage and threatened to resign. Others said they planned
to write to Ayatollah Khamenei in protest, and reformist sources said they
were afraid that one of their colleagues could face criminal charges for
protesting against the leader's action too vociferously.
The Iranian press has given the reform movement a powerful voice; the
ayatollah used a speech in April to label some newspapers, "bases
of the enemy".
For this reason, conservatives in the judiciary shut down these publications,
beginning in April, and jailed at least half a dozen editors and commentators.
Some were imprisoned for up to five years; others were released on bail
but banned from involvement in writing or publishing.
Yesterday the reformist MPs were poised to make such restrictive measures
more difficult by passing a new press law which would require legal action
to be taken against newspaper publishers, rather than against individual
writers, thus lifting the threat of jail sentences from journalists.
The law would have changed the composition of a press supervisory board,
which licenses publications, to include more reformers.
Reformist MPs knew that the extent of their power remained uncertain.
Even if they had rallied a majority to vote for the bill, it could still
have been vetoed by the Guardian Council, a body of conservative clerics
and jurists charged with deciding if legislation conforms to Islamic law.
It often uses this power to veto legislation it disagrees with for political
Mohammad Reza Khatami, deputy speaker of parliament and the head of
the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the reformers' biggest faction, which
functions like a political party, acknowledged the movement's limitations
Mr Khatami, the brother of President Mohammad Khatami, said the new
MPs should lower their expectations for change.
The parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, a senior cleric approved
by Ayatollah Khomenei to lead parliament against the wishes of the reformers,
reminded MPs of the limitations of republican rule.
"Our constitution has the elements of the absolute rule of the
supreme clerical leader and you all know this and approve of this,"
he said. "We are all duty-bound to abide by it."
To counter the gains that reformers have made through the ballot box
in municipal and parliamentary elections, conservatives have asserted their
power in the judiciary and law enforcement - the institutions they dominate.
Many reformers now say publicly that it will take many years to achieve
political pluralism. Mohsen Kadivar, a prominent cleric who was released
from prison after being given an 18-month sentence, said it was unrealistic
to expect freedom of speech in Iran to happen quickly.
Mr Kadivar was jailed for a series of articles he wrote accusing the
clerical establishment of behaving like the shah's regime.
"We are living in a third world country. There is a 2,500-year
history of despotism," he said. "It is natural that there should
be resistance in the face of freedom. The judiciary respects neither the
law, nor religious standards, nor public opinion.
"But the fact that they arrest their opponents, rather than kill
them like they did before, is progress."