Iran's reforms in grip of hardline foes
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, Dec 17 (Reuters) - President Mohammad Khatami has all but abandoned
his fight for free expression and the rule of law, bringing down the curtain
on the most ambitious attempt ever to reform Iran's Islamic system.
In a humiliating defeat, Khatami was forced late last week to jettison
Minister of Culture Ataollah Mohajerani, architect of his sweeping cultural
reform, effectively ceding control over the media and the arts to conservatives.
Three weeks ago, the president said publicly what aides say he had
long recognised in private - that he lacked the power to fulfill his campaign
pledge to enforce the law of the land.
Analysts say those retreats left in tatters a reformist platform that
saw Khatami garner almost 70 percent of the popular vote in 1997 and raised
serious doubts as to what he could hope to achieve should he seek a second
four-year term in presidential polls now scheduled for June 8.
"Since his election Khatami has faced the death of a thousand cuts
by his hardline critics, but these latest blows were self-inflicted,"
said one analyst, who asked to remain anonymous.
"They are a recognition that his efforts have, essentially, been
in vain," the analyst said.
Instead of ushering in a new era of "Islamic democracy", an
increasingly frustrated Khatami today presides over an Iran that resembles
the authoritarian era of the early and mid-1990s.
The independent press has been muzzled, newspaper editors, activists
and dissident clerics are in jail. Members of the small Western press corps
- fruits of Khatami's successful policy of detente - are now routinely
denounced as "spies".
KHATAMI 'THAW' ICES OVER
Once-lively debate has been stilled and the reformist parliament silenced.
Shadowy vigilante squads once again break up reformist meetings and rallies.
Officials bemoan an accelerating brain drain that has seen Iran's best
and brightest flee to the security of the West. A member of the chamber
of commerce said last week Iran ranked 154th out of 160 countries in attracting
Many of Khatami's supporters, including the informal circles that shaped
the broad reform programme over the past 10 years, now say their dream
of a pluralistic society may be on hold for decades. Some are searching
for a new presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, tributes to Mohajerani, whose resignation offer Khatami accepted
on December 15 after months of pressure, poured in at the weekend from
artists and reformists.
But the warm words could not hide the anxiety of many that the Khatami
'thaw' was slipping into the icy grip of resurgent hardliners. Already,
some 30 independent publications have been banned by the judiciary, most
For his part, Mohajerani left no doubt that any steps toward freedom
of expression in the press and the arts were transitory at best. "We
have not achieved any success worthy of our nation, artists and writers,"
he said in his resignation letter.
For Khatami, a former minister of culture and newspaper publisher, the
loss of Mohajerani was particularly bitter. He had looked to the independent
press as the engine powering his drive for a civil society within the Islamic
Its influence, however fleeting, was put on full display in parliamentary
polls earlier this year, when the Tehran slate of candidates named by pro-reform
publishers coasted to victory.
But by April the conservative establishment had regrouped, using its
control over the courts and the political authority of supreme leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei to crush the free press.
Dozens of dailies, including that of the president's faction and those
of his allies, were banned. The reform movement, which once claimed to
speak for 20 million voters, lost its voice.
"Looking back, it was a mistake to rely so heavily on the press,"
said one editor, whose newspaper was banned. Reflecting the renewed political
chill, he asked not to be identified.
"It was too easy to open newspapers and too easy to close them.
We should have focused on more lasting elements of a civil society. But
we were revolutionaries, propagandists. This is what we knew."
Earlier, Khatami admitted that he, too, had erred and that he had been
forced to stand by helplessly as the judiciary blocked his intitiatives
and undermined his popular mandate for change.
"Here, I confess I have not done my best in cases of violation
of the constitution," he told legal scholars and theologians.
"After three and a half years, I must be clear the president does
not have enough rights to carry out the heavy task on my shoulders."
It was his second such admission in three months.
The declining fortunes of Khatami have been matched by a reciprocal
increase in the daily influence of the supreme clerical leader. Between
them, Khatami and Khamenei represent the twin pillars of republican and
In recent months, Ayatollah Khamenei has completed a 10-year effort
to transform his office from one of spiritual and political oversight to
one of direct executive rule.
He kicked off the crackdown on the press with a landmark speech, denouncing
reformist newspapers as "bases of the enemy." Later, he ordered
parliament to abandon attempts to ease press restrictions.
And sources close to Mohajerani said it was the leader's decisive intervention
that finally forced Khatami to accept his resignation.