Middle East


Reformists' Setback

Press Iran
An Iranian woman reads the reformist daily Nosazi in Tehran (Photo: AFP).

For the second time this year, President George W. Bush’s comments on Iran played an important role in the internal struggle between reformists and conservatives in that country.

Whereas Bush’s State of the Union remarks earlier this year, in which he called Iran part of an “axis of evil,” managed to unite—albeit temporarily—the different factions of the Iranian government against what was portrayed as American interference, his remarks on July 12 had the opposite effect. “The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes,” Bush stated.

His remarks came at the height of internal arm-wrestling within the Iranian government and provided the conservatives with an opportunity to consolidate their power. As Alireza Alavitabar, former editor of the outlawed reformist Sobheh-e Emrouz told Hayat-e-No (reformist, July 15), “The reformists obliviously stood by and watched.”

But that was not all. Bush’s statement coincided with the third anniversary of the student uprising in Tehran of July 9, 1999, when the University of Tehran’s dormitory was attacked by paramilitary vigilantes and security forces after a peaceful student demonstration. The anniversary made the headlines of all reformist dailies. The most influential, Nowruz (reformist, July 9), chastised the judiciary for its failure to put the attackers on trial, “waiting three years in vain for justice to be carried out.”

On July 10, the paper printed the full text of the resignation letter of Ayatollah Taheri—the leader of Friday prayers in Isfahan—in which he accused the conservatives of tyranny and corruption. The next day, the conservatives (who dominate Iran’s Supreme National Security Council) banned all newspapers from writing against or in favor of Taheri’s comments.

Most newspapers questioned the legality of such an order, and in an unprecedented move, Nowruz left the space it had allotted for its seven articles about Taheri’s remarks blank, with the explanation: “The article was removed on the National Security Council’s order” (July 10).

On the same day, one of the editors of Nowruz, Abbas Abdi, criticized reformist President Mohammad Khatami for his lackluster policies and asked him to take a stronger position against the conservatives: “You have to act according to the pact you made with the people. There is nothing worse than breaking your promises,” Abdi asserted. Abdi’s article and Taheri’s resignation marked a new phase in the ever-increasing political confrontation in Iran, and it unleashed a barrage of insults from the conservatives.

Joumhouryieh Islamyieh (conservative, July 11) explained, “Taheri is surrounded by anti-Islamic elements.” Another conservative newspaper, Jam-e-Jam (July 13), called Abdi’s suggestion “an American project carried out by those who want to act outside of the system.” President Bush’s statement on July 12 caused a knee-jerk reaction among some reformists, but it provided a golden opportunity for conservatives who were quick to assert that “reformism is in fact an American project” (Kayhan, conservative, July 14).

While most reformists kept quiet about Bush’s statement, some of them tried to dodge the “American crony” accusation by taking an anti-American stance. “The biggest help the American president can provide to reformists is not to interfere in the internal affairs of the great nation of Iran,” said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist leader, in an interview with Nowruz (July 14). In a typical lengthy editorial, the publisher of Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari—who was selected by the supreme leader—opined that Bush’s statement was part of a larger American plot to topple the Islamic regime with the help of the reformists. “Bush’s statement had two sides,” he asserted. “One, admitting that their plot, which was to be carried out on July 9, didn’t work, and two, consoling its fifth column—the hypocrites—who are in a political quagmire.”

Kayhan’s editorial caused a flurry of articles and speeches by conservative politicians, who condemned Bush’s statement as interference in internal affairs.

Most reformists silently observed the conservatives’ consolidation of power. Alireza Alavitabar was the only reformist who criticized Khatami’s government for losing an opportunity for rapprochement with the United States. “If Clinton’s position was better vis-à-vis Iran, then why didn’t we use that opportunity to protect our national interests?” Alavitabar asked in Hayat-e-No (July 18). “Why do the reformists have to pay for the conservatives’ irrational policies? Why do we have to witness them destroying every opportunity?”