By Nazila Fathi
The New York Times
August 7, 2000
Quashing a cherished goal of President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist
allies, Iran's supreme religious leader today sided conclusively with the
country's conservatives and ordered Parliament to scrap a bill aimed at
restoring a free press.
The surprise intervention by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's top
Muslim cleric, stunned reformers who had hoped to use their newly won strength
in Parliament to revive the once vigorous liberal press.
When Mr. Khamenei's decision was announced, the chamber erupted in loud
arguments and scuffles. Sixty reformist members of the 290-seat Parliament
walked out in protest.
The proposed law to deregulate the press was the centerpiece of Mr.
Khatami's package for the new Parliament, which opened in May. It was meant
to counter the conservative crackdown of the last six months, when courts
closed nearly every reformist newspaper and jailed editors and intellectuals.
The 22nd newspaper was shut down today.
The parliamentary showdown was a decisive moment in the ongoing struggle
between reformist and conservative forces. The battle has simmered, with
occasional eruptions, over the three years since the reform-minded president
was swept to power on the votes of a youthful electorate that has come
of age since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Friction between the two camps increased with the victory of reform
politicians in parliamentary elections six months ago. In response to the
recent crackdown, reform leaders had urged their supporters to be patient,
promising that the new Parliament would overturn the press and social restrictions
enacted by its predecessor.
They said their chief aim was to pass a new press law that would permit
a resumption of the lively public debate and investigative journalism that
had flowered under Mr. Khatami.
In refusing to permit the bill to be debated or voted on, Ayatollah
Khamenei took the exceptional action of circumventing the normal institutional
checks on legislative power.
The Iranian Parliament, while directly elected, is relatively weak.
Any law it passes must be approved by the Council of Guardians, a conservative
clerical body. A law rejected by the council can then be appealed by Parliament
to another group, the Expediency Council, which is also dominated by hard-liners.
Only then -- at least until today -- did the supreme leader intervene to
make a final decision about the constitutionality of a measure.
Until now, Ayatollah Khamenei, who owes his position to the powerful
religious hierarchy, had succeeded in appearing to give a little support
to each side of the political divide.
He has praised the president as a good Muslim who is a true heir to
the values of the Islamic revolution. In late May, just days before the
new Parliament was to open, he pressed the Council of Guardians to end
its long delay in certifying the reformists' election victory in Tehran.
But Ayatollah Khamenei has also provided ammunition to hard-liners,
endorsing their judicial crackdown on the pro-Khatami press and describing
reformers as hirelings of foreign powers.
In a letter sent to Parliament and read out there today, Ayatollah Khamenei
said he considered the proposed new press law a threat to the fundamental
pillars of the clergy-run system in Iran.
"It will be great danger to the national security and people's
faith if the enemies of the Islamic revolution control or infiltrate the
press," he wrote. "The present press law has prevented such disaster
so far. The proposed bill is not legitimate, and amending it is not in
the interests of the country."
The press law now in effect gives the courts, which are dominated by
conservatives, the power to close newspapers summarily and to control who
owns or works for them. It was passed in the waning days of the previous
Parliament, which was controlled by religious hard-liners opposed to Mr.
Khatami's program of social reforms.
The proposed press law, which was drafted by one of Mr. Khatami's government
ministries, would have restored some independence for media and required
jury trials before the closing of any publication.
Mehdi Karrubi, the speaker of Parliament, said Ayatollah Khamenei, who
has held his post since 1988, had the constitutional power to order the
lawmakers to stop consideration of a bill. The system, he said, is based
on submission to the "absolute rule of the supreme leader."
That view, however, was disputed by reformist members of Parliament.
"The decision should have been put to a vote," said Ali Tajernia,
a reformist legislator.
Once the letter was read, the room erupted in shouts, and some members
began shoving each other. In the heat of the moment, one reformer, Mohammad
Rashidian, ignored religious and political protocol by referring to the
supreme leader simply as "Khamenei," without an honorific. He
was immediately condemned by conservative members.
It was not clear what effect today's move by the ayatollah might have.
Since the closure of most reformist newspapers, most supporters of Mr.
Khatami have heeded pleas from leaders of his camp to keep calm. Last month,
however, angry students demonstrated in front of Parliament, calling for
Hamidreza Jalaipour, who helped found and run five now-banned daily
newspapers, said journalists still had no choice other than caution. But
he said new publications would continue to appear in an effort to test
the boundaries of political freedom.
"The result will be that newspapers and journals will continue
to publish under new licenses and different names every time they are shut
down," he said.
Some reform members said they held out hope that Ayatollah Khamenei
could be persuaded to change his mind. Fathimeh Haghighatjoo, a representative
from Tehran, said reformers were planning to write to him to explain why
a more unfettered press would be beneficial.
"We believe we can solve obstacles such as what happened today
if we have closer ties with the leader," she said. "The problem
is that the Constitution is vague when it explains the duties of Parliament
and the supreme leader."
Under the system put in place after the Iranian monarchy was uprooted
by the Islamic revolution, the supreme leader controls the military, security,
courts and all broadcast media in Iran. Only the president, Parliament
and some municipal councils are elected.