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Assassins of the right botch Iranian coup

By Safa Haeri and Marie Colvin
Sunday Times, London
May 7, 2000

THE shooting of a popular Iranian politician was ordered by conservative forces within the regime, security sources in Tehran have revealed. The hardliners believed his death would spark riots that could be used as a pretext to stop reformers taking power.

However, the target, Saeed Hajjarian, the architect of the reformists' election victory in February, survived despite being shot at close range.

The hardliners have since mounted a fierce onslaught against Muhammad Khatami, the Iranian president, and his allies in an apparent attempt to prevent the new parliament from convening later this month.

Since the shooting Tehran has been swept by rumours of coup attempts. A second round of voting for the majlis, or parliament, was held in a tense atmosphere on Friday. Preliminary results yesterday showed that of the 66 seats contested, 43 would go to candidates affiliated with the reformists, 13 to independents and only 10 to the conservatives.

Analysts said the conservative plot could have worked had the would-be assassins succeeded in killing Hajjarian, 47, the publisher of the banned Sobhe Emrouz (This Morning) newspaper and a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which swept to victory in the elections.

The conservatives intended to mingle with hundreds of thousands of mourners at Hajjarian's funeral. They would have been ordered to incite riots that could have been portrayed as anti-Islamic.

The security sources say Khatami's opponents in the security forces would then have declared a state of emergency and called in the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a volunteer militia. They would have closed political institutions, imprisoned reformers, shut down newspapers and created a "crisis cabinet" led by conservatives.

They believed that Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the powerful former president who was humiliated in the elections, would then have headed that cabinet.

This account is supported by the transcript of a meeting of some of the plotters attended by a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards.

There were suspicions of official involvement from the moment Hajjarian was attacked as he stepped from his car in front of Tehran city council at 8.40am on March 12. He stopped to take a letter that a man offered him and was shot in the face by another man, who escaped on the back of a waiting motorbike.

Hajjarian recovered from a coma, left hospital last week and moved to a heavily guarded house in northern Tehran.

The motorbike was of a make that only the security forces and Revolutionary Guards are allowed to own. When the reformist press began to speculate that conservative forces were behind the assassination attempt, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, imposed a news blackout.

Eight men, some employed by the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence arm, are on trial for the attack. They were arrested by the Guards and kept incognito until Khatami insisted that the legal system should handle the case. Khamenei then ordered the Revolutionary Guards to hand them over.

Since the shooting, reformers have been warned to lie low until the majlis convenes. Students have orders to attend their classes and stay off the streets. "The reformists have decided to accept every provocation, every humiliation, so that the majlis can convene as scheduled," said a Tehran source.

The provocations have been numerous in recent weeks. Altogether 16 newspapers have been closed because of their sympathy for Khatami. They include a paper run by Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother, who, as the biggest vote-winner in the parliamentary elections, has been tipped for the job of Speaker.

Three leading journalists have been jailed. Two prominent feminists and a national student leader have been hauled before a revolutionary court. Khatami's brother was also charged with insulting Islam.

The transcript shows how desperate the conservatives have become. The Revolutionary Guards' deputy commander is quoted as saying: "The situation is extremely serious. The presidency and the majlis have fallen into their (the reformists') hands and they enjoy the support of 75% of the public. We must act quickly to weaken them, then stop them from advancing, as a prelude to removing them from the scene."

The conservatives fear the reformist parliament will try to amend the constitution and curb the absolute powers of the supreme leader established by Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979.

 

The conservatives control the security forces and the levers of power, but are probably supported by only about 20% of the population. The reformers aim to reshape the Islamic re-public's political system through legislation passed by the new parliament.

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