Iranian Revelations as Press Tests New Freedom

The offices of Iran's newest and most-targeted newspaper hardly look like a den of counter-revolutionaries.

In Tehran's green and sometimes opulent northern suburbs, a house has been converted into offices filled with rows of new computers. Outside, a gardener sprays flowers to keep them from wilting in the heat.

Unassuming as its offices may be, however, Jameah newspaper - the name means "Society," after reformist President Mohamad Khatami's call for a new "civil society" in Iran - has become a prime target of right-wing clerics who want to shut it down.

Born of Mr. Khatami's promise to liberalize the press, Jameah's first print run of 50,000 in February has grown to nearly 300,000 daily. In the year since Khatami swept to power in a landslide victory, the total number of newspaper and journal licenses has shot up to 1,000.

But Jameah has gone where very few post-revolution papers in Iran have dared tread. The paper is so feared among conservative clerics that attacks on it may be part of a broader offensive against Khatami.

Jameah's license was revoked earlier this month for insulting the head of the Revolutionary Guards and others, for libel, for provoking insecurity by using unreliable information, and for breaking moral values.

The paper quoted Brig. Gen. Rahim Safavi, in a tough speech against Khatami's policies in May, allegedly threatening to "root out antirevolutionaries wherever they are.... Liberals have entered the foray with cultural artillery ... and our youth are now shouting slogans against despotism."

Though portions of the speech were quoted in several other papers, General Safavi's lawyer reportedly told the court that it was "internal" to the Guards, and confidential.

Publisher Hamid Reza Jalaeipour was banned from publishing for one year and fined $5,000, but while awaiting a final verdict, he is still publishing.

"We are against revolution from above, and we're against revolution from below," says Mr. Jalaeipour in an interview. He is unshaven and full of energy, refers to himself and the paper's other founders as "religious intellectuals."

The paper, he says, is 100 percent independent, and that scares the ruling clergy. He put up 17 percent of the original investment, selling his father's shop in the bazaar to come up with the cash. If the paper is banned, he says they will start another one.

"We believe in dialogue, and are against the closed mind and the closed society," he says. The paper gives space to religious and secular thinkers and - in its "watchdog" capacity - hasn't shied away from critical coverage of the snail's pace of Khatami's reform program.

For Iranians, the paper has been immediately different. It recently ran front-page coverage of President Clinton's comments about possible "reconciliation" between Iran and the US. Other papers buried the story.

Jalaeipour divides politics in Iran into two main groups. There are the "Islamist republicans" who belong to Khatami's camp, and want a kinder, gentler Islamic system. And there are the Islamic populists, he says, which "bring people into the streets, need a foreign enemy to denounce, and use violence." Right-wing clerics and security forces typically are in this category.

Conservative clerics, says Jalaeipour, are frightened of his newspaper's potential for huge huge social impact. "Jameah is important because it could shape public opinion."

It apparently already has, in line with Jalaeipour's own change of thinking. During the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew the pro-West Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, he wanted to change the world with Islam.

But more recent Islamic thinkers have brought democratic interpretations to the faith, one that Jalaeipour says has "changed political discourse in Iran." So emerged the "first civil society newspaper in Iran," he says.

Jalaeipour is also confident because his revolutionary credentials are hard to ignore: He was imprisoned during the Shah's regime and spent eight years as a Revolutionary Guard himself, fighting Iraq in the 1980s. Three of his brothers were killed in that war.

"In the long term, Khatami will win, because there is a social base for change," he says. "Today we are in a democratic atmosphere, and revolutionary ideology is not forever. [It was all right] against the shah, but if we only continue with revolution, then we are anarchists."

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