Iran reformists challenge press laws
By Guy Dinmore
September 13, 2000
Mojtaba Vahedi cuts an unlikely figure as editor of Iran's latest pro-reform
newspaper. But with powerful political connections, Mr Vahedi, who is also
a private businessman in the cement sector, may survive where others have
The birth last weekend of Aftab-e-Yazd
(Sun of Yazd) was eagerly awaited by Tehranis thirsty for news following
the closure since April of about 25 reformist publications by the hardline
judiciary and the arrest of about a dozen writers and editors. Circulation
of the daily began at 50,000 and has already doubled.
"We are absolutely a reformist newspaper," declared Mr Vahedi.
Its provenance is clear. The editorial offices occupy the same building
as Bayan, banned in June, and before that Salaam, whose closure a year
ago triggered student protests that led to a week of civil unrest in Tehran.
The mostly youthful staff on Aftab-e-Yazd are drawn from various deceased
Mr Vahedi, 37, says his editorial line is based on the promises made
by Mohammad Khatami, the moderate president, namely honesty with people,
transparency and an insistence on democracy. Yazd, where the paper began
as a local daily, is the president's home province.
The new daily intends to adhere to the political and religious precepts
of the Islamic Republic's constitution as well as the strictures of the
current hardline press law, one of the last acts passed by the outgoing
"But this does not mean we will remain silent," adds Mr Vahedi.
Iranian media had reported the managing editor would be Mehdi Karrubi,
the new speaker of parliament and a close ally from the Islamic left of
Mr Khatami. Not so, says Mr Vahedi, but he does admit that he is the speaker's
"cultural" adviser. "I have some connections with Mr Karrubi,"
The daily's first editorial defended Mr Karrubi's visit to New York
this month, to attend an international gathering of parliamentarians, where
he had a long discussion with four US Congressmen, including two Jews.
Diplomats in Tehran saw the meeting, described by Mr Karrubi as a chance
encounter at a reception, as a significant moment in the slow thaw in relations
between Iran and the US. Hardliners within the Iranian establishment were
The appearance of Aftab-e-Yazd comes at a critical moment in the power
struggle between supporters and opponents of the president. The only other
mainstream reformist daily, Hayat-e-No, appears in danger of joining the
purge. Hadi Khamenei, its managing editor, has been summoned to the Special
Court for the Clergy.
Hadi Khamenei, a cleric and reformist member of parliament, is also
the brother of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. Ayatollah
Khamenei, perhaps, as some analysts believe, acting under pressure from
arch-conservatives, ordered the new reformist-dominated parliament last
month to abandon plans to pass a more liberal media law. His intervention
provoked an outcry among reformists and focused debate on his powers.
Mohsen Kadivar, a cleric fresh from serving a two-year jail sentence
for his dissident views, was attacked two weeks ago by Islamist vigilantes
in the western town of Khorramabad, where he had been invited to address
a national congress of pro-reform students. Several days of violence ensued.
One policeman was killed and the provincial governor was beaten up at the
Undeterred, Mr Kadivar spoke in Tehran last week at a mosque packed
to overflowing. Outside, large numbers of police, their lesson learned
from the unrest in Khorramabad, kept back Islamist militants.
The gathering was in memory of Ayatollah Mahmood Taleghani, a popular
leftist cleric who died shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Quoting
the ayatollah, Mr Kadivar said the leadership of the Islamic system should
be elected by the people and the limits of their powers should be clearly
"Freedom is the best divine and human gift. Ayatollah Taleghani
said we would never tolerate having one dictatorship replaced by another,"
Mr Kadivar said.
The crowd reacted with a standing ovation to his speech. The men there
were of all ages, many clean-shaven, unlike the bearded militants across
the street. Well known "religious-nationalist" figures were among
the audience, declared adherents to Islam but opposed to unbridled clerical
In the ebb and flow of Iran's power struggle, it is never quite clear
which faction has the upper hand. Attempts to assert total control struggle
in a system of parallel power structures.
Akbar Ganji and Emadedin Baghi, two prominent journalists, are in Evin
prison but the books and articles that got them there are still on sale
in Tehran bookshops.
The Circle, a film about the oppression of Iranian women directed by
Jafar Panahi, last week scooped the Golden Lion top award at the Venice
Festival. The film had been barred from public view in Iran but an official
confirmed on Tuesday that the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture,
headed by a reformist ally of the president, had lifted the ban.