January 20, 2001
Tehran EVER since 1997, when Muhammad Khatami was elected Iran's president,
the European Union has tried to avoid criticising the country in a way
that might play into the hands of the conservative clerics who oppose the
president's efforts to turn it into a nicer place. But the EU's discretion
could not survive the verdicts handed down on January 13th, when eight
well-known supporters of the president were given shockingly long prison
sentences by a hardline judge, mostly for what they had said, or perhaps
The crimes of most of them were committed not in Iran but in Germany,
at a conference organised by an affiliate of the Green Party, a junior
partner in the government. Making matters even more awkward, one of the
convicted, Said Sadr, worked as a translator for the German embassy in
Tehran. So it was probably with mixed feelings that Joschka Fischer, who
is both foreign minister and a leading figure in the Green Party, summoned
Iran's ambassador in Berlin for a dressing down at the weekend. On January
16th, the EU itself deplored the "harsh verdicts".
One of the reasons for Mr Khatami's popularity at home is the way he
has gone about improving his country's previously fraught relations with
European countries. He was applauded last year, when he became the first
Iranian leader to visit Germany and France since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Now, with a presidential election scheduled for June, the conservatives
may be trying to sabotage his foreign-policy achievements--although the
hardliners railing piously against Mr Fischer's words of protest are indubitably
in favour of good relations with Germany, one of Iran's largest trading
partners. What they do not like is Mr Khatami reaping the benefits.
It is not the first time that Iran's judicial system has damaged Mr
Khatami's friendship with the EU. Last year's conviction of Iranian Jews
on flimsy charges of espionage led Britain's foreign minister to drop plans
for a visit. On January 15th, Gerhard Schroder, Germany's chancellor, reassured
Mr Khatami that he had not abandoned plans to come to Tehran. But the severity
of the sentences make it unlikely that Mr Schroder will consent to make
Mr Khatami look statesmanlike in the near future, and certainly not before
The EU agrees broadly with the reformists' contention that the trial
was a crude put-up job, designed to put some of Mr Khatami's most influential
supporters behind bars. No one denies that the Berlin conference, which
was supposed to be a platform for Iran-based reformists, degenerated into
a rowdy rally by dissident exiles. A woman offended Iran's Islamic proprieties
by dancing, and a man stripped to show scars from a torture session. But
Iran's (conservative-run) state television whipped up the furore by endlessly
broadcasting offending images, while ignoring footage that reflected much
better on the Iran-based lot.
The verdicts have a strong political smell to them. Some moderates were
let off, but of the 14 defendants who actually attended the conference,
the judge found seven guilty of setting up "a group aiming to destroy
national security". Two other defendants, Khalil Rostamkhani and Mr
Sadr, had little to do with the conference, and neither took part in it.
But that did not stop them being sentenced respectively to eight and ten
years in jail for handling dissident literature: they are old communists,
and the regime loathes old communists.
No one was surprised that Akbar Ganji was sentenced to ten years in
prison, and a further five years' internal exile; he has done more than
any other journalist to reveal the guilty secrets of senior members of
the regime. And Ali Afshari, who was handed a five-year jail sentence,
is a firebrand student leader who has been so bold as to question the infallibility
of Iran's supreme leader.