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Iran's delicate balance tips to the right

By Roula Khalaf
Financial Times (London)
August 8, 2000

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and the ultimate authority in the Islamic republic, has always tried to stay above the fray of politics.

In some of the most intense power struggles between conservatives and reformists in recent years, the senior Shia cleric often struck a delicate balance, warning against speedy reforms but also declaring his support for President Mohammad Khatami, the architect of Iran's political liberalisation.

So Mr Khamenei's direct intervention on Sunday to block the reformist parliament's proposed amendment to restrictive press laws was out of character.

In addition to undermining the reformist agenda, it raises doubts about the close relationship that has developed between the president and the supreme leader.

"We are now in unknown territory, and the divisions between reformists and conservatives have widened," says a diplomat. "Clearly the supreme leader has come under great pressure from the conservative establishment but this is the first time that he expresses his position clearly and does not try to appear impartial."

Mr Khamenei's intervention marks a big setback for the reformists, who had made the amendment to the press law their priority since a sweeping victory over conservatives in last February's parliamentary elections. Reformist deputies were yesterday careful not to criticise Mr Khamenei openly but were equally worried about appearing ineffectual in the eyes of their electorate. Some deputies suggested they might be able to propose another bill and get it through parliament.

Promoting press freedom has been a central plank of Mr Khatami's liberalisation efforts since his election three years ago, and many consider the resulting explosion of liberal publications to be his biggest achievement so far. Journalists have pushed the freedom to the limit and have even attempted to investigate the 1998 killings of intellectuals in which top Islamic figures are thought to be implicated.

The increased freedom has helped Mr Khatami expose conservative failings and promote the rule of law. But it has also enraged the conservatives: the outgoing conservative-dominated parliament passed a restrictive press law after the February elections that allowed them to pursue the liberal publications Mr Khatami had encouraged.

Reformists suspect that the resulting press crackdown was partly inspired by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and now head of the Expediency Council, a powerful state body that can block legislation in parliament. Mr Rafsanjani was the conservatives' top candidate in the February parliamentary elections but he suffered a humiliating setback and was ridiculed by the press when he came last on the elected list in Tehran.

Mr Khamenei, under increased pressure from conservatives, including Mr Rafsanjani, has been enlisted in the press war. He seemed to sanction the crackdown in the spring when he declared that some elements of the press had become "bases for the enemy."

Two weeks ago, the divide between him and Mr Khatami appeared to be widening, when he made clear that the majlis, the parliament, should concentrate on economic, rather than political, change.

Some observers believe that Mr Khamenei's intervention in parliament this week was part of a compromise reached at a meeting last Thursday, attended by the supreme leader, the president and Mr Rafsanjani.

"It is too early to judge whether the move means a breakdown between the president and the supreme leader. We have to see what follows it," says one analyst. "It is entirely possible that in Thursday's meeting, it was agreed that the parliament would not reinterpret the press law, so as to avoid further confrontation with the conservatives, but that it might tackle economic reforms and the reform of the judiciary which Khatami wants but which could also help the economy."

That Mr Khatami was forced to agree to such a compromise, however, does not change the perception in Iran that the president's agenda has been severely undermined and that the country's elected institutions have been shown to be ineffective.

Indeed, the abrupt killing of the press reform proposal can only intensify the pressure on the president because it isolates him between fierce conservative rivals and a frustrated electorate.

The president took the unusual step last month of announcing that he would run for a second term in next year's poll. The move followed a campaign in conservative newspapers to discourage him from seeking re-election. The hardline press suggested that he should leave his office in style rather than have a second term and see his popularity erode.

But Mr Khatami must also answer to a young population that is hungry for change and expecting his government and the reformist parliament to start delivering on their electoral promises. "Khatami has a habit of not saying anything in times like these but there are only so many times that he can remain silent without risking a loss in support," says a diplomat. "Already there are some who say that he's a nice guy but he has no power."

The patience of many reformist politicians, who have supported the president and have been dealt a severe blow in parliament this week, is also at risk.

As the conservatives were closing down newspapers in recent months, reformists heeded calls for restraint from Mr Khatami and refused to be drawn into a confrontation.

With a firm mandate from the Iranian people, they believed that time was on their side and that their control over the majlis would begin to undo some of the harm inflicted by the conservatives.

"The hope of the people for change was pinned on the majlis and if the majlis has been emasculated, we're going to see more friction," says Davoud Bavand, a professor of international relations based in Tehran. "The supreme leader's move will have a bad impact on people's minds; it will increase the process of radicalisation of some reformists and of indifference to the political process by others."



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