Iran’s hardliners refuse to give up. Despite a string of election defeats, conservatives are fighting reformers with every weapon at their disposal. A key battleground is the press, which has been a pillar of support for President Mohammad Khatami, leader of the reform movement. This week, fundamentalists stepped up their efforts by closing half the liberal papers that had emerged since Mr. Khatami came to power in 1997. This is only the latest move in an increasingly desperate campaign to thwart the will of the majority of the Iranian people. It will fail, but the power struggle could yet erupt in violence.
Since Mr. Khatami came to power in a surprising landslide win, reformers have slowly taken the initiative against the fundamentalists. Mr. Khatami knows that he must proceed carefully to avoid a backlash. He has been successful: The ranks of his followers have grown steadily and liberals swept the parliamentary elections that were held last year.
But the fundamentalists have not conceded defeat. While they have not moved directly against the president, the hardliners have not hesitated to move against individuals who outpace the cautious Mr. Khatami. Their control of many key organs — the security services, the judiciary, the military and key administrative bodies that oversee elections and the press — gives them the leverage they need. For example, the Council of Guardians, an oversight commission that must confirm all election results, has overturned the wins of 10 reformers in the last parliamentary vote, and more decisions are pending. Each decision has sparked protests across the country, but the fundamentalists have not been deterred.
The press has led the fight against the old order; so the campaign against it has been the most ferocious. There have been murders and assassination attempts: Last month, Mr. Saeed Hajjarian, a crusading journalist, was shot and gravely wounded. All the evidence points to hardliners being behind the attack. Sometimes the intimidation has been more subtle: Nearly every leading reform journalist has been called for questioning by the judiciary.
Last week, the conservatives brought the conflict into the open. The trigger was film from a recent conference in Berlin on postelection developments in Iran. The Iranian state-run TV showed participants denouncing the current government and scenes of an Iranian woman dancing with bare arms, a violation of Iranian law. Days later, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, delivered a speech in which he labeled 10 or 15 newspapers “bases of the enemy” and said they were undermining Islamic principles.
The hardliners seized the moment. Early this week, Mr. Latif Safari, director of the now-banned Neshat daily, was taken to prison for questioning. The previous day, Mr. Akbar Ganji, Iran’s top investigative reporter, had been arrested. Earlier this month, Mr. Mahmoud Shams, editor in chief of a paper and a leader in the fight for press freedom, lost his appeal of a two-and-a-half year prison term for “insulting religious sanctities.”
Finally, the judiciary Monday suspended “until further notice” publication of eight newspapers and four political magazines that have supported Mr. Khatami. That leaves just four liberal papers still open; but the ones closed down were read by the majority of Iranian citizens.
The hardliners are attempting to undo the election results by fiat. They are driven by personal considerations as well as political ones. The Islamic revolution has given the fundamentalists control over vast parts of the Iranian economy. Reform threatens their financial as well as their religious interests. That makes them doubly dangerous.
Mr. Khatami has thus far proven to be a wily tactician, well aware of the dangers of pressing too far, too fast. Some of his allies have not been as judicious. Their reckless has provided the fundamentalists the excuse they needed to crack down.
But the conservatives no longer speak for the Iranian people. The revolution has run its course, grounding itself on the shoals of economic inefficiency and the oppressive society the fundamentalists have imposed. They have not conceded defeat, however. Their attempts to defy the wishes of the majority of the Iranian people will not succeed, but there is no sign that they will go quietly. It is a tragedy in waiting, but the worst scenario can be avoided. It will test all of Mr. Khatami’s skills and the patience of his allies. This week’s move to shutter the press is merely the latest skirmish in a losing battle.
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