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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".


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 foreign investment.

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 without trial.

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 system.

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 clerical power.

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.


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