A wave of arrests signals a conservative crackdown as Iran prepares for national elections scheduled for June 8. President Mohammad Khatami is being squeezed between the need to defend reform and the fear of provoking a backlash by hardliners. It is a delicate position, but one Mr. Khatami knows well: Throughout his entire term in office, he has negotiated the treacherous shoals of Iran’s domestic politics.
In the last several weeks, dozens of journalists, politicians and supporters of reform have been jailed. Leaders of student groups, one of the president’s key constituencies, have been targeted. Earlier this month, the judiciary, which is controlled by hardliners, ordered the arrest of 42 political activists. They were tied to the Iran Freedom Movement, an Islamic progressive opposition group close to reformers; the court also banned all activities by the IFM. The activists are accused of seeking to overthrow the country’s Islamic regime, a charge that carries the death penalty. They deny the accusations. The campaign has also extended to the media. Several dozen newspapers and magazines have been closed during the last 12 months; last week, four more received written warnings, which is usually the precursor to being closed.
Many of those arrested are reportedly being held in secret detention centers, where they are denied access to lawyers. Families of detainees have written a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, accusing the government of the systematic use of psychological pressure on prisoners to extract “confessions” and of making threats against families to silence them.
The arrests have sparked a wave of protests. Student leaders have staged sit-ins on behalf of the jailed activists. More than 150 reformist parliamentarians demanded an end “to the unlawful acts.” Human Rights Watch has said the crackdown “is beginning to look like a coup.” Even Mr. Khatami has condemned the arrests, but he tempered his comments with appeals for calm.
That caution is the hallmark of Mr. Khatami’s career. He came to power in 1997 when he won 70 percent of the vote. That landslide stunned Iran’s conservatives, but they quickly regained balance and have waged a not-so-secret war against the president ever since. They arrest his supporters, hoping to incite democrats — and even the president — to take action that conservatives can then use to justify a harsher crackdown. Mr. Khatami has not played along, but the danger is that his moderation will cost him the support of more fervent reformers.
The crackdown is intensifying as the country prepares for the national elections in June. There are suspicions that the campaign is designed to silence reformers and pave the way for a return to power by conservatives. Mr. Khatami has not yet announced whether he will run for a second term; he must decide by May 6. While he would be the favorite in any fair election, the ongoing battles against conservatives have taken their toll on the president. This crackdown is a signal to Mr. Khatami that he cannot expect the election to end the fight for power in Iran.
The reform movement will continue no matter what Mr. Khatami decides. Three decades after the Islamic Revolution, citizens are growing increasingly impatient for economic and social progress. Iran is a young country; two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. Those people are frustrated with the conservatives’ iron grip on the country, and their preferences are evident in the series of elections won by reformers since 1997. Unfortunately, the hardliners control the judiciary, intelligence and security ministries, which are independent of the president and the Parliament. From this secure power base, and with the support of supreme leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamanei, they do all they can to block the reformers’ program.
Mr. Khatami may be frustrated by the conservatives and reluctant to confront them, but he is still the most powerful force for reform in the country. A decision not to run would be a blow to the reform movement. It would be difficult to find a standard bearer in the short time before the election; rallying the various groups behind him would be more challenging still.
Patience is a virtue in politics, but it is often hard to reconcile with the demand for change. Mr. Khatami’s instincts are correct; there is nothing to be gained by forcing the conservatives’ hand — and much could be lost. Although the process has been agonizingly slow and fraught with setbacks, Iran’s reformers have made progress in the last few years. They will make yet more in the future if they bide their time and avoid the confrontation the hardliners seem eager to court.
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