Are hardliners taking aim at reformists?

Yesterday's shooting of Iranian reformist follows conservatives' big loss in elections.

Amid increasing warnings in Iran that hardline elements could react violently to conservative defeat in elections last month, a daylight assassination attempt yesterday in a Tehran street left one of Iran's leading reformers seriously wounded.

No one claimed responsibility for the shooting of Saeed Hajjarian, a close ally of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and managing editor of the cutting-edge reformist newspaper Sobh-e-Emrouz.

But reformist politicians, editors, and intellectuals have been targeted many times since Mr. Khatami was elected in a landslide in May 1997, promising the "rule of law" and social reform of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Hardline elements have used militant thugs knows as Ansar e-Hizbullah and Basiji groups in the past to violently counter reformists in the streets, and rogue security elements have admitted before to killing dissidents.

"This is a very important event, because it is a major, politically inspired terrorist action," says a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. "This figure was very important in the political landscape of the country. This man is not a nobody."

Witnesses described how two assailants wearing motorcycle helmets approached Hajjarian outside the Tehran municipal offices, where he holds a seat on the City Council, then shot him twice before escaping on a high-powered motorcycle.

Speculation was rife in Tehran yesterday as to the identity of the culprits. Motorcycles of the size used in the shooting can only be used by police - because in the past they had been used as getaway vehicles in political killings.

Armed guards at the municipal offices also did not chase after the assailants.

"Historically, this is the way the right reacts when it loses," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, the deputy editor of the English-language Iran News, in Tehran. "There are two possibilities: It could be the MKO (the Iranian opposition Mujahideen e-Khalq Organization) or rogue elements allied to extremists."

But speculation focused on the hardliners, he said, whose track record in this regard is long proven: "People are drawing their own conclusions."

Parliamentary elections last month were swept by reform candidates, confirming - with 83 percent of eligible voters turning out - the popular mandate for Khatami's reform agenda. Scores of big-name conservative politicians were ousted and humiliated by poor showings, and analysts then predicted a violent backlash.

Calling the perpetrators "terrorists," President Khatami said of the attack: "The enemies of freedom wrongly believe that they can attain their goals by assassinating a pious intellectual who was serving the nation."

The Ministry of Culture, controlled by reformists, declared: "Bullets cannot halt the trend of the establishment of democracy in Iran."

Iran's Supreme National Security Council [SNSC], the Islamic Republic's top security body, called an emergency session within hours and set up a special operations center.

"Those who chose Hajjarian to be their assassination target knew they would create a crisis in the country by doing so," said Ali Rabiei, secretary of the SNSC.

In the all-out battle between the factions, few methods have remained off-limits. Conservatives until last month used control of the parliament and the judiciary to imprison popular reform politicians - even such figures as cleric and former Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri, whose revolutionary credentials are ironclad.

Student protests and peaceful lectures by reformist professors have in the past been broken up by chain and truncheon wielding militants, and heavy-handed police brutality against students protesting the closure of a newspaper led to days of street rioting last July.

A flood of new reform newspapers like Mr. Hajjarian's have been a special source of vilification for conservatives. Hajjarian himself - a former hardliner credited with founding Iran's notorious intelligence ministry - wrote some of the boldest criticisms of the "rogue" death squad that was found responsible for a series of murders of intellectuals in 1998.

That event - and Khatami's ability to force the intelligence ministry into an unprecedented admission of guilt by its own people - shook some of the pillars of unaccountable rule that have dominated Iran's political life for much of a generation.

Since the election, Hajjarian has made what were considered to be provocative statements about the reformist victory, and has received numerous written death threats - some from extremists reportedly linked to the previous killings of intellectuals.

By coincidence, the Iran News published an editorial yesterday morning - which hit the streets just hours before the 8:35 a.m. shooting - warning the intelligence and security services to take precautions "before the actions of some extremist and prejudiced individuals threaten the security of the country once again and endanger the lives of our cultural architects."

The editorial reminded readers that the arrest of an intelligence-agency death squad a year ago yielded a list of names of 200 cultural, artistic and media figures to be murdered "over a period of time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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