With Iran's Reforms at Stake, a Moderate Digs In
By JOHN F. BURNS
The New York Times
October 24, 1999
TEHERAN, Iran -- Eight months after winning more votes than any other
candidate in Teheran's municipal elections, Abdullah Nouri, a key figure
in Iran's Islamic reform movement, has been spending much of his time in
recent days closeted with his lawyers.
Together, they have been working on strategies for a trial next week
at which they will attempt to save the newspaper Nouri controls from court-ordered
closure, and Nouri from what could be a lengthy prison term. Beyond that,
they hope, by winning Nouri's acquittal, to protect the reform movement
from a setback that could undermine its prospects of winning crucial parliamentary
elections next February.
Nouri is a confidant of President Mohammad Khatami, probably Khatami's
most important ally. Both men are Muslim clerics with political pedigrees
that go back to the Islamic revolution of 1979, when they were trusted
lieutenants of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the upheaval
that ousted the Shah. Now, they lead the May 23 Movement, a coalition that
aims at bringing democracy and tolerance to the harsh system of Islamic
rule they helped build.
Nouri, 50, and Khatami, 53, are considered apostates by extreme Islamic
conservatives, some of whom have threatened publicly to kill those they
consider "enemies of Islam." Khatami goes nowhere without an
elaborate security entourage, but Nouri, since being ousted from Khatami's
Cabinet by conservatives last year, must provide for his own safety. Since
he was indicted last week by the Special Court for the Clergy, a powerful,
conservative-controlled body that meets in closed session to consider cases
involving clerics, he has gone nowhere without bodyguards.
But instead of bowing before conservative attempts to silence him, he
has gone on the offensive, saying things that seem unlikely to help him
when his trial begins next Wednesday. At a meeting with students at the
University of Science and Technology in Teheran on Monday, he described
his indictment as illegal and politically motivated. Then, using an analogy
that seemed certain to enrage his critics, he compared their tactics unfavorably
with those of the Shah, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, who fled Iran in 1979 and
died in exile.
"As soon as one speaks of freedom, these gentlemen raise the issue
of depravity," he said, referring to the conservatives. "If freedom
is the propagation of depravity, then there was much more freedom under
At his trial, Nouri will face the most serious charges leveled against
any Muslim cleric since the Islamic takeover. He has been accused of using
Khordad, his newspaper, to insult the Muslim Prophet, Mohammed, and his
direct descendants, the imams who are Shiite Muslims' principal saints.
He is accused as well of insulting Ayatollah Khomeini, of backing banned
political parties that want a secular Iran, and of "propagating"
in support of Iran seeking friendly ties with its two main adversaries,
the United States and Israel.
If found guilty, Nouri faces certain imprisonment, and the closure of
Khordad, a pro-reform newspaper that has so far survived a crackdown in
which four pro-reform newspapers have been closed by the conservative-controlled
press court in the last 12 months. But Nouri's associates say the real
purpose is broader. By punishing Nouri, they say, conservatives aim to
halt growing defections among the clergy to the reformers, thereby consolidating
the clerical hierarchy that inherited the Shah's authoritarian powers.
A guilty verdict, or even a decision by the court not to reach a verdict,
would bar Nouri from political life, and thus prevent him from organizing
the reformers' campaign, and from being a candidate in the parliamentary
elections that are scheduled for Feb. 18. With Nouri excluded, reformers
would lose their biggest vote-getter, and the man most likely, after a
reform victory, to take the powerful post of parliamentary speaker from
Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the conservative who lost the 1997 presidential
election to Khatami.
Many Iranians believe that reformers are poised to repeat their two
previous election successes -- the 1997 presidential vote, which Khatami
won with 69 percent of the vote, and elections in February of this year
for 200,000 seats on village, town and city councils, which reformers swept
by a similar margin in the popular vote. But conservatives, responding
with increased efforts to weaken, discredit and frighten reformers, have
made no secret of their determination to use all means available to avoid
losing control of the 270-seat Parliament.
Khatami and his associates have long been beleaguered. Last year, a
popular Teheran Mayor with close links to the President, Gholam Hossein
Karbaschi, was sentenced to five years in jail and a lifetime ban from
politics at a corruption trial that many Iranians saw as a political vendetta.
In June 1998, Nouri, then the Interior Minister, was ousted in a parliamentary
no-confidence vote. In May this year, the Culture Minister, Ataollah Mohajerani,
another cleric, narrowly survived impeachment by parliamentary conservatives
angry at his failure to control pro-reform newspapers.
In February, Mohsen Kadivar, another dissident cleric, was imprisoned
on the clergy court's orders on charges of "defaming Islam,"
in part by writing a newspaper article in which he compared the authoritarian
society favored by the conservatives with the rule of the Shah.
In July, police and vigilante gangs attacked University of Teheran students
protesting the closing of a pro-reform newspaper, killing at least one
and possibly three students, injuring scores of others and ransacking a
university dormitory. Dozens of students, possibly hundreds, remain under
But for reformers, perhaps the most threatening conservative move ahead
of the parliamentary vote has been the threat to use another powerful body,
the Council of Guardians, to use a religious test to disqualify large numbers
of reform candidates. The council, which has made sweeping use of the power
in past elections, recently vetoed a new law that would have curbed its
power by requiring it to give written reasons for rejecting candidates,
heightening reformers' concerns.
The battle over who can run in the parliamentary elections is not likely
to be settled before January, when nominations close. Much may depend on
the attitude of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme religious
leader, who has sweeping executive powers that far exceed Khatami's. Earlier
this month, Khamenei, hitherto considered the conservatives' main standard-bearer,
stunned the country by calling Khatami a "pious man" and urging
conservatives not to block his efforts for "the rebirth of Islam."
Iranians were left to wonder whether Khamenei had a change of heart,
or made the speech to allay reformers' concerns while conservatives work
through bodies like the clergy court, the press court and the Guardians'
Council to consolidate their power. The indictment of Nouri, less than
two weeks after Khamenei's speech, has done little to encourage optimism
that the religious leader was sincere.
Mohajerani, the Culture Minister, has said he feared the worst from
the Nouri trial. "I'm not optimistic," he said. Khatami seemed
to voice his own dismay when he spoke recently to a youth gathering in
Calling for a world free of "discrimination, despotism and lies,"
he said there would always be people, in every society, who would oppose
change. "Unfortunately, there are people who will always want to protect
their own power and wealth and privilege by erecting barriers against others,"