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Tip-toeing toward reform
... against a powerful conservative minority

By Mehdi Ardalan
August 31, 2000
The Iranian

Iranian reformists are learning the lessons of patience, the hard way. Their teachers are vanguards of an entrenched establishment that not only refuses to change but also seems offended by any suggestions to do so. Hence, the ban-them-all mentality that has gripped the judiciary where even the most toned down comments can be used as an excuse to silence a newspaper.

The complainants against the reformist press come from an array of institutions that President Khatami is trying to integrate into the new order he has in mind. But his efforts have left heavy casualties among some of his staunchest supporters now rendered silent behind bars of Tehran's notorious Evin prison. These include Abdollah Nouri, the jailed ex-interior minister who is serving a five-year sentence on charges of blasphemy, and pro-reform journalist Mohammad Qouchani, 20, whose arrest is the latest in a series of press related crackdowns.

Iran's population is among the youngest in the world and the youth are hungry for reform, as has been clearly evident in recent clashes in Khorramabad. The strength of this power-base and its frustrations has the potential of turning the reform movement into a bloody nightmare for both Khatami and his opponents alike, one that not even a recently-elected pro-reform parliament can head off.

Iran's sixth parliament is believed to be able to rally 210 pro-reform MPs from a total of 290 . The majority of the MPs were dumbstruck before they were angry at a letter that carried a few sentences from the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, expressing in no uncertain terms that discussion on a bill aimed at liberalizing the press laws should not proceed. The bill was meant to provide reformists a breathing space in an escalating power struggle with the conservatives.

Khamenei's alliance with conservatives in shelving the press reform bill may have taught the reformists a lesson: be content with smaller steps. By attending to lesser issues, the reformers would appear to be moving away from the people's main demands. It could even make the reformers as unpopular as the conservatives. To prevent this, reformist leaders, including Khatami himself, have preached patience but kept up the protest.

By refusing to prescribe a violent revolt, the reform movement seems to be contemplating new tactics aimed at advancing its agenda through the quagmire that is Iran's political structure. The difficult challenge is to take full advantage the president and parliament's popularity and at the same time try to control public anger and frustration.

Reformers are hesitant to use their popularity other than to win elections or organize symbolic protest gatherings. Even the gatherings end up becoming an easy target for Islamic vigilantes. Meanwhile reformers also seem to be toying with the idea of civil disobedience and non-violent demonstrations. Such tactics will not prevent further crackdown. Neither is there any guarantee that it will contain discontent. Yet a massive wave of stubborn tip-toers continues moving against an overwhelming minority of marchers.

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