Iranian reformers counter with silence

Political battles in Iran have long complied with Newton's third law of physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

But the next step for beleaguered Iranian reformists flies in the face of such conventional wisdom.

Ever since reformists won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections in February, hard-line conservatives have worked overtime to undermine that popular mandate. Last week, some 15 reform-minded newspapers were shut down, even as plans of a military coup have reportedly been revealed.

But will reformists loyal to President Mohamad Khatami's reform agenda exercise their popular mandate by fighting back on the streets? Not yet.

"The hard-liners are looking for a very tough reaction from the reformists, but the reformists won't give it to them because we are waiting for the new parliament," says Hamid Reza Jolaiepour, editor of the pro-reform Asr-e Azadegan newspaper that has been shut down. "The reform strategy is silence."

Mr. Jolaiepour has edited a string of papers that have been shut down as Iran's independent press has blossomed in the three years since Mr. Khatami came to power. But this time he doesn't plan to reopen, until parliament does.

"The hard-liners want a chaotic situation, because then they have special, extraordinary powers. But with silence they have nothing," he says. "They are waiting for any pretext to bring out the tanks."

The second round of voting is set for May 5, and the Majlis, or parliament, is to sit first on May 28. Some results have been overturned by watchdog bodies controlled by rightist clerics, and there have been delays in finalizing first-round results.

Sporadic unrest outside the capital, Tehran, has not been especially serious. Students and other pro-reform groups here have largely heeded calls for calm.

"People got the message that going on to the street is not the way, because it just plays into the hands of the hard-liners," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named. "The reformists are lowering the flame. They want to allow the storm to pass, and hope they will survive until they can get to the Majlis."

Shutting down all reform newspapers may create the spectacle of having reformists controlling parliament, while their outside voice - the papers - are deemed to be illegal.

Most Iranians say that rumors of a coup, or at least of hard-line attempts to annul the election results or delay the sitting of parliament, could backfire. The Revolutionary Guards, many point out, are known to have voted overwhelmingly, like the population, for reform.

"Iran doesn't have a history of coups, and to do that would reduce the political legitimacy of the system," says Jolaiepour. "Would they risk that, just to keep their grip on power?"

"If there is a coup, the Islamic Republic falls into a big trap of being isolated from the people," says the analyst. "It would be against everything this revolution was made for - the people have always been the cornerstone.

"The conservatives don't have any choice, because in the end, they are alone, with the majority of 60 million people who don't like them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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