The jury of eight turbaned clerics sat along one wall, as low-key as if judging a high school debate. The audience shifted in plastic chairs or stood in the back along a curving wooden staircase.
The scene Nov. 9 in this modest "courtroom" - a converted living room in a luxurious north Tehran house - hardly bespoke its significance. Abdollah Nouri - for years a trusted representa- tive of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and more recently a high governmental official and reformist newspaper director who received the most votes in recent local elections - is on trial for apostasy, undermining clerical rule, and advocating the renewal of Iran-US ties.
More than that, the court has in effect put on trial the reform movement led by President Mohamad Khatami, who was elected by a landslide in 1997, promising more social freedoms, the rule of law, and democracy. The trial's outcome will influence the direction of crucial parliamentary elections in February, where conservative candidates may lose their majority to reformist or independent candidates.
"The problem here is you have two legitimacies: the popular one of President Khatami, and the religious one of the conservative clerics," says a senior Western diplomat. "Until now, it was believed that they could act together. But now people are not so sure."
Either Mr. Nouri will be acquitted, lead the reformist candidates to the vote, and - it is widely rumored - could become Iran's next parliament speaker. Or he will be convicted, as many Iranians believe, spend years in prison, and thus be removed from the political scene.
"In truth, who here is trying to challenge our Islamic system?" Nouri asked the court. "Is it me, or is it those who ignore our constitutional laws, who try to set Muslim against Muslim?"
The trial is one part of a multiprong offensive launched by conservatives and the institutions they control against the reformists whose popularity at the polls has been shown in three elections so far. Increasingly critical newspapers have taken advantage of the new openness ushered in by Mr. Khatami to attack forces resistant to change and to agitate for faster reforms.
Lacking in most other official means of pushing forward his agenda, the one weapon Khatami has to use, and which the clerical establishment has yet to successfully demystify, is his popular support.
"They [conservatives and reformists] are both on the offensive, and they are both going all out," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor in chief of Tehran's English-language Iran News. "It is about the survival of the right, because they are in danger of losing parliament, and the left is in danger of not getting those spots. The result could change the balance of power."
But reformers may never get as far as that, if previous elections are any measure. All candidates must be vetted first by the hard-line Guardians Council for their adherence to Islamic values and ideology. In today's charged political climate - as in previous elections - known Khatami supporters are likely to be rejected.
These supporters have become restless at the slow pace of change and what they see as Khatami's efforts being checkmated at every turn by right-wing elements. The patience of students ran out last July when the closing of the outspoken Salam newspaper sparked a sit-in strike, police violence, and days of violent protest.
And conservative moves against the press have continued. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, editor of the reformist Asr-e Azadegan newspaper, is currently on trial for forgery and insulting Islamic principles. On Nov. 8, he refused to speak in the absence of a jury.
Further legalistic delays may not sit well with the younger generation that is the core of Khatami's support, which poses difficulties for the majority that want peaceful change and rules of law.
"What do you do if you are pro-Khatami?" asks a Western diplomat. "You preach for the law, but if the law is used against the people's will, then there will be a real risk of violence."
"The conservatives have the upper hand. They have the police and the Army, but politically they are despised," says a European envoy in Tehran. "But how to get rid of them? Not by voting, because there is no democracy. You can only hope that the transition will not be too violent."
Still, he adds, a massive show of reformist support at the polls "could be a massive scare" that might impel hard-liners to temper their views. Some argue that heavy-handed actions - such as the Nouri trial, which critics compare to Europe's Inquisition of centuries ago - have backfired already and further alienating people.
"There is a popular reaction against the rightists because of this trial," says Mohammad Soltanifar, managing director of the Iran News. "Even if people don't like Khatami, they will go to the left because they dislike the modus operandi of the right. What people want most is security. They don't want to see future development through revolution, but evolution."
Nouri, although among the elite of the clerical establishment with an impeccable revolutionary pedigree, has himself been in the firing line before. His second tour as interior minister was cut short last year when he was removed by the parliament, or majlis, for reformist thinking.
Arena for reformist views
Nouri rejects the legitimacy of the Special Court for Clergy where he is on trial - calling it unconstitutional - but says he attends proceedings out of "respect" for the system. It has become an unprecedented arena for his views, and even conservative newspapers have commented on how Nouri has put the process itself in the dock.
"Listen," warned the relatively young judge Mohamed Salimi, who was a teenager during the revolution. "The reason why we convened this court is not to give the accused a platform from which [he] can continuously cross-question the court."
Many Iranians say that, regardless of the outcome, the sense of openness that has swept over Iranian politics in the past two years won't disappear. "Even if tomorrow they impeach Khatami, it doesn't mean this is the end of the change," says one close Iranian observer. "And getting Nouri out of the picture does not mean they won. It's gone beyond Khatami. Either way, the conservatives lose."
Such a calculation may be what spurs the hard-line face-off with Nouri in court and the other conservative moves to stymie reformists.
"They are very nervous, and they won't relinquish their position without a fight. It just doesn't happen in a nondemocratic system," says the European envoy. "They have a limited perspective. They don't travel much or meet people from outside. So inside them is still the root of the revolution, and it's a formidable force."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society