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Iran's Cultural Architect Steps Down

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN (Reuters) - President Mohammad Khatami has accepted the resignation of liberal culture minister Ataollah Mohajerani, a move which analysts said could deal a fatal blow to the movement for greater freedom of expression. Photo here

Mohajerani was the chief architect of Iran's cultural renaissance, the man behind the explosion of free press and arts in the country.

State television announced late on Thursday that Khatami -- himself a former minister of culture -- had accepted the resignation, submitted many weeks ago.

Political sources close to Mohajerani told Reuters the president had given in to mounting pressure from conservatives, chiefly from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But the official news agency IRNA quoted Khatami as saying Mohajerani's departure would not derail his drive for cultural openness.

The hardline judiciary has closed more than 30 independent publications and jailed several liberal activists since April after bitter denunciation by Khamenei of the reformist media as the ``bases of enemies.''

Mohajerani, 46, said in his resignation letter that he found work in the current climate unbearable.

``The conditions and requirements that have taken shape in the realms of art, culture and the intellect have made it impossible for me to continue my duties,'' he was quoted as saying by IRNA.

``We have not achieved any success worthy of our nation, artists and writers,'' he added.

Khatami, nearing the end of his four-year term, said he had accepted the resignation with reluctance.

But he vowed Mohajerani's legacy would live on: ``It is evident the path to lasting development and to safeguarding freedom of thought and human rights and dignity is irreversible and will continue,'' the president said.

Khatami had not wanted to accept Mohajerani's resignation, according to one analyst. ``He was forced to accept it as a last resort after he saw his resistance was to no avail,'' said the analyst, who is close to the former minister's circle.

The forced departure of Mohajerani, a favorite target of conservatives, marks the end of an era that had seen a brief flurry of press freedom unprecedented since Iran's Constitutional Revolution almost 100 years ago.

Iran's independent press was already reeling from mass closures by reinvigorated conservatives in charge of the judiciary. In the absence of the charismatic Mohajerani, there appears little chance of a comeback anytime soon.

Pressure On President

Analysts say the president, who had looked to the press to fuel his drive to create a civil society, has little room to maneuver in his choice of a successor for Mohajerani. On Thursday he named deputy culture minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei as caretaker.

``Khatami is really at a loss as to who to choose as a replacement,'' said commentator Saeed Leylaz.

``Mohajerani was very successful in making the press, the cinema and arts and culture flourish...He was bearing the pressure so as to relieve Khatami of cultural criticism, so he could have his hands free to do his job in other fields.

``Now, with Mohajerani out of the way, these pressures can be directed at Khatami himself,'' he said.

But few in Iran are prepared to accept that Mohajerani, a driven and deeply political personality, will vanish from the scene. He has even been mentioned as a dark horse contender in next year's presidential contest.

Under Mohajerani, dozens of newspapers and journals across a range of political viewpoints received publication licenses and state subsidies. Secularist writers, denigrated by the post- revolutionary establishment, found a voice in cultural affairs.

But as one of the driving forces behind Khatami's push for political and social pluralism, Mohajerani drew his share of pressure from hard-liners in the judiciary and the parliament.

In May 1999, he confounded his critics and survived a no- confidence vote in the conservative parliament, after dazzling MPs with a virtuoso performance laced with Persian proverbs.

Born in the central city of Arak in 1954, Mohajerani received a degree in Iranian history and culture at Shiraz University, where he came into contact with a number of leading reformist intellectuals. He later completed a doctorate in Tehran.

His entrance into Khatami's cabinet as minister for culture in August 1997 was widely welcomed by intellectuals, hoping the president's populist landslide would help remove long-standing censorship over the arts and the press.


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