Iranian hard-liners' grip tight as reformists regroup

Many in the reform movement have become disenchanted by the inability of their leaders to loosen conservatives' hold over Iranian politics

Amir Mohebbian, a columnist for the conservative Iranian daily Resalat, has little trouble summing up the state of his country's reform movement.

"Iran's reformers are like poker players whose bluff has been called," he says firmly. "Their game is over."

Mr. Mohebian's paper is a mouthpiece for the hard-liners who surround supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, its pronouncements ignored by most Iranian readers. But on the issue of the country's beleaguered reform movement, even those at the opposite end of the political spectrum grudgingly admit it is right.

In 2001, following the reelection of moderate President Mohammad Khatami by a wide margin, many Iranians believed they finally had a government capable of bringing the changes they demanded. But disenchantment quickly set in. Despite the support of a new reformist majority in parliament, the man some have labeled Iran's Gorbachev has proven unable to influence hard-liners in the executive and judiciary to loosen their grip on Iranian politics.

"The reform process has been emasculated," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a law professor at the Supreme National Defense University in Tehran. "The mood in Iran now is angry, but above all pessimistic."

Analysts say the crunch came on June 3, when the Guardian Council - a staunchly conservative unelected upper house - refused to ratify a parliamentary bill that would have stripped the councilof its power to veto candidates it considered unsuitable for elected office.

Mr. Khatami had described the measure as crucial to planned reforms, and had hinted he would resign if it was vetoed. He has yet to budge, however.

Their leader's helplessness exposed more harshly than ever, parliamentary reformists seem increasingly split between moderates, many of whom are clerics willing to work within Iran's theocratic system, and others, who privately want out.

Rift among reformists

With rumors rife that a small group of radical reform lawmakers may be preparing to resign, analysts question Khatami's ability to hold his group together until elections next year. "His insistence on change through consensus has reached the end of its usefulness," says one reformist deputy. "The time has come for confrontation."

A far more serious blow to Khatami's cause came in early July. Dismayed by his perceived failure to defend 4,000 protesters detained after nationwide pro- democracy demonstrations in June, the student-led Office to Foster Unity (OFU) announced it would no longer be supporting him. With about 60,000 members, OFU is among the largest and best-organized protest groups in Iran.

Though conservatives like Mohebbian insist reformists "overestimate people's desire for change." In Tehran, at least, criticism of the regime is omnipresent.

Taxi drivers routinely boast that they have stopped picking up anyone wearing a cleric's turban and robes. Deep skepticism of Iran's leaders extends even to some members of the baseej, a pious semi-militia.

The trouble, argues pro- reform columnist and businessman Saeed Laylaz, is that hard-liners have been just flexible enough to appease most of their critics.

"These people are not stupid," he says. "Their willingness to permit the loosening of puritanical laws on dress and public behavior have created the illusion of freedom." He also warns against the assumption that the grumbling in Tehran is shared throughout the country.

"The Shah made that mistake, and he ended his life in exile," he says. "Only cautious reforms can balance urban radicalism and rural demands for bread."

He may be right. A more convincing explanation for widespread Iranian apathy, though, was given by Mohsen, a student at Tehran University. "Look where our last one-night revolution got us. How can we be sure the next one won't be worse?" he asks.

New catalyst

Such cynicism worries Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi, the youthful political editor of the pro-reform daily Etemad. He points to the dismal 12 percent turnout at local elections in Tehran this February. "We handed victory to the conservatives on a plate," he fumes. "And the same thing could happen in next year's general election."

He believes the recent death of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was detained by police after taking photographs outside Tehran's high-security Evin prison and had her skull fractured during interrogation, could motivate the flagging reformists. "Her murder," he says, has forced us to pull together."

Bolstered by Canadian pressure, reformist criticisms have forced Iran's hard-line judiciary chief to remove Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi - whom many suspect of having had a hand in killing Ms. Kazemi - from leading the investigation into her death.

"He's been the main instigator of newspaper closures over the past four years," comments Iran expert Ali Ansari, who is based in Britain. "Now it's payback time."

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