A whodunit with gray eminences - and red faces

The seedy offices of the Iranian publishers Tarh-e No are stacked high with freshly printed books smelling of ink on paper, the promise of literature, and - in Iran's volatile political atmosphere - subversion.

It is from such humble roots that a publishing sensation is rocking Iran, by tapping into a vein of popular discontent and focusing a democratic lens on the identity of a nation long used to absolute rule.

In a market that usually sells 3,000 to 5,000 copies of any book, "The Red Eminence and the Gray Eminences" is in its 29th printing, and has sold 160,000 copies in just four months. The book is a collection of hard-hitting factual newspaper columns that, 21 years into Iran's Islamic revolution, expose dark tales of right-wing abuse of power.

The real-life detail about political murders, a death squad in the intelligence ministry, and misdeeds of one of Iran's most powerful families may read like a whodunnit. But the book's impact in Iran, analysts say, is not unlike America's Watergate scandal because it has helped redefine politics in Iran.

The bold challenge it represents to once-untouchable forces in Iran has made the book an effective arrow in the quiver of reformers led by President Mohammad Khatami, who are locked in a power struggle with hard-line clerics who fear that democracy will undermine their dominance.

The author is Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist who plays the role of Woodward and Bernstein - the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate break-in that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

"Ganji was the first, in a highly intimidating atmosphere, to put his life on the line to investigate these forces," says Reza Alavi, an Iranian former editor of the Harvard Middle Easter and Islamic Review. "It's not wholly entertainment for Iranians - it's the everyday life of the people [at stake]: the essentials of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Mr. Ganji is now in prison for his writing, along with several other reform activists who were rounded up in an April backlash after conservative forces lost their control of parliament in February elections.

But while Ganji has sat in prison, his book has taken on a life of its own as a bestseller.

Iranians speak openly now about revelations that, just a year ago, were described in whispers. "This book has surprised everybody," says publisher Hossein Paya, whose company prints many of the top reformist titles that sell out as soon as they hit the shelves.

"People are showing support for the reformists when they buy it, and show they want accountable government," he says.

The "Gray Eminences" mentioned in the title of Ganji's book are intelligence operatives, who in late 1998 formed a death squad and assassinated several dissident intellectuals and writers. The event proved a watershed for Mr. Khatami, who had been in power since a spring 1997 landslide vote, and had campaigned to bring law, order, and openness to Iran.

In a surprise move, he managed to force the secretive intelligence ministry to admit responsibility for the killings. The intelligence chief was sacked, too, sending an unmistakable signal to hard-liners who had long used the intelligence services to carry out such political dirty work.

Ganji, a former Revolutionary Guard soldier with intelligence connections, is believed to have had inside information on the case from which he wrote a series of explosive columns. His writing paved the way for investigative work by other writers, such as columnist Emadedin Baghi - a former cleric who was also arrested last spring.

"[The Israeli intelligence service] Mossad and the CIA are doing these things [killings] every day," says an Iranian official who asked not to be named. "But the fact that in Iran the intelligence services apologized is incredible."

"We forget now, but two or three years ago, people talked of the intelligence ministry in hushed tones," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. "These two people made it a laughing stock, and the fact they dared to do it is astonishing."

The "Red Eminence" of Ganji's title is a barely veiled reference to former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a man who for most of two decades was a key center of power in the regime.

Ganji for the first time challenged his record, and along with a former student taker of American hostages in 1979, Abbas Abdi, exposed the corruption of the first family, tarnishing the Rafsanjani reputation. The result was that in the February election, Rafsanjani - who conservatives calculated would easily assume the speakership - barely made it into parliament at all, and later gave up his seat.

"The Woodward and Bernstein analogy works," says the diplomat. "They forced changes in the intelligence ministry, and brought down Rafsanjani. He was humiliated by that vote."

Ganji's book has also come as the economy slips further into malaise. Other social problems are becoming so bad - after years of official coverups - that people are increasingly fed up with uncompromising clerical rule.

Tehran officials earlier this month, for example, revealed publicly for the first time that five tons of narcotics are consumed every day in the capital, and that the number of addicts may have grown to 2 million. The average age of prostitutes - a crime punishable by death, and rarely seen on the streets - has dropped from 27 to 20 in the past few years.

"Ganji's book did quite a bit of damage, but Ganji is not the first revolutionary who became antirevolutionary," says Hassan Ghofari Fard, a US-educated right-wing member of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution.

He downplays the book's popularity, by saying that 160,000 copies is "not important" relative to Iran's population of 60 million. "We [conservatives] never denied that 2 or 3 or 5 percent of the people are antirevolutionary and don't believe in religious government."

The legacy of Ganji's work may be still deeper, though, because it sheds light on dark chapters in Iran's revolutionary past, as national politics are redefined.

"People say that the serial murders are the Watergate of the regime, but there are many other corpses in the cellar," says a senior Western diplomat.

In the early years of the revolution, scores of opponents of the regime were murdered inside and outside Iran, and the chaos of those moments - and the vague leadership dictates of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - led to widespread abuses of civil rights as Iran's identity was molded to fit a new, religious model.

For publisher Paya, whose book-stacked offices are the source of political enlightenment or subversion, depending on your politics, Ganji's book is fulfillment of a promise of curbing absolute power that was born in the 1906 constitutional revolution.

That event was carried out by the elite, he says. The 1979 revolution, by contrast, was carried out "by the masses" alone. In that sense, Khatami's success so far - and Ganji's, too - at breaking the hard-line habit of unaccountability has been a watershed.

"The gap between the elite and the masses is growing smaller," Paya says. "This is the biggest achievement in the history of this country: It is the first time these two groups came together in Iran to pave the way for democracy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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