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Guns and the bookworm

The Economist
March 17, 2000

WHENEVER Iran takes a step forward, something clutches at its heel. Last weekend, an assailant shot Saeed Hajjarian, a political strategist who helped to bring about reformist victories at recent elections. For several years, Mr Hajjarian has worked behind the scenes to loosen the country's constraints. As he approached Tehran's city council on March 12th, a group of men distracted him while two others drove towards him on a motorbike. A gunman jumped off to fire two shots: policemen on the spot, even though armed with machineguns, failed to arrest him. One bullet missed, but the other lodged in Mr Hajjarian's neck. At mid-week he was in a coma, critically ill.

Reformers are convinced that this gangland shooting was an inside job, carried out by hardliners. Their main evidence is that the getaway vehicle, a 1,000cc motorcycle, is illegal for general use but available to security men working in agencies that have become strongholds for hardline extremists. But there are several types of suspect: members of the basij (Islamic militiamen), the Revolutionary Guards, intelligence agents or even members of Tehran's police force.

It was the basij who, with the police, beat up students last July as they slept in a Tehran University hostel, a bit of brutality that led to a week of riots in the capital. Some months earlier, hardline vigilantes had murdered four liberal-minded writers and academics. Rogue agents in the intelligence ministry are said to have confessed to those murders.

Mr Hajjarian was a prime target. He was once a deputy minister of intelligence and it was no secret that he leaked some of the agency's darkest deeds to reporters at Sobh-e Emrouz, the newspaper of which he is managing director. His newspaper has recently been listing the murder of dozens of intellectuals in the 1990s by hardliners in the intelligence ministry. It has also suggested that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani presided over these plots while he was the country's president. Mr Hajjarian had been sent written death threats and was advised to use bodyguards. He refused to do so.

A parade of officials, including President Muhammad Khatami, have visited Mr Hajjarian's bedside. Such violence, they have said, is a price that must be paid for freedom. The president has promised that the "terrorists" will be punished. At one time, this response might have satisfied public opinion. These days, Iranians demand more.

The attack on Mr Hajjarian happened, write newspaper commentators, because the state failed to take action against the vigilantes who attacked the sleeping students last year. Tehran's police chief and 19 policemen are on trial, but the greater culprits, the Islamic extremists, are said to have gone free. And though suspects have been arrested for the murders of the four dissident intellectuals, no trial has yet taken place. The state, claim these newspapers, has failed to make it clear that political violence will not be tolerated. Indeed, attacks are encouraged by certain clerics from their pulpits every Friday.

In fact, Mr Khatami lacks the authority to take direct action against extremists in the security services. Iran's constitution declares the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to be commander-in-chief; only he can order a house-cleaning in the Revolutionary Guards and the basij. The ayatollah has strongly condemned the shooting, but he derives much of his power from the right and is unwilling to alienate his supporters.

Even were the constitution to be revised, many doubt whether Mr Khatami would go all out for profound change. Some have even begun to suspect that, basking in the glow of fame, he may be unwilling to share the political spotlight. They note that not one member of the circle, including Mr Hajjarian, who engineered Mr Khatami's victory in 1997, holds a key position in his government.

Ten years ago, this group, including members of the state-sponsored Strategic Studies Centre, conceived the idea of a civil society in Islamic Iran, the hallmark of Mr Khatami's presidency. Now they are growing impatient with Mr Khatami's slow pace. He is, some of them feel, over-interested in protecting his own hold on power. Several have adopted a faster route by turning themselves into journalists and newspaper editors, the leading voices of reform.

The assassination attempt is likely to widen the gap between Mr Khatami and the more impatient reformers. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's leading clerical dissident, expressed a general view when he said that the government's failure to stop terrorist acts was contributing to its own decline. Mr Hajjarian once predicted that if he and others at the Strategic Studies Centre had left Mr Khatami to his own devices, he would have remained "a bookworm in the National Library", which he directed in the mid-1990s. As Mr Hajjarian clings to life, there is a growing demand that the president should safeguard the spirit of the man who helped to rescue him from obscurity.


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