Reformist Newspapers Suspended in Iran

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

London ( - The suspension of 12 reformist newspapers in Iran appears to be part of a deal struck by President Mohammed Khatami and "hardliners" in the judiciary, according to a former leading Iranian newspaper editor.

The IRNA news agency reported Monday that Iran's judiciary had suspended eight dailies and four other papers which had "disparaged Islam and the religious elements of the Islamic revolution."

"The justice department said the tone of material in those papers had brought smiles to the faces of the enemies of the Islamic Republic and hurt the feelings of devout Muslims at home and even the leader of the Islamic revolution," IRNA said.

Western wire agency reports called the suspensions a severe blow to Khatami's reformist agenda.

But Amir Taheri, a former editor of a major Tehran newspaper, told Monday that Khatami appeared to have struck a deal with his opponents.

"They have offered him the possibility of pursuing some of his reforms, and in exchange there's been the closure of these newspapers.

"This has been the demand of the Supreme Guide as well," he added, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, whose powers supersede those of the elected president and who said last week some newspapers had become "bases of the enemy."

Taheri said the "deal" also involved attempts to have 50-60 members of newly-elected lawmakers "switch sides," to balance out pro- and anti-reform stances in the legislature, creating in effect a "hung parliament."

Lawmakers in Iran do not represent political parties, he explained, but were purportedly "independent."

In February elections, reformist-leaning candidates for the first time in 20 years denied "hardliners" a majority in the 290-seat legislature.

Also as part of the alleged "deal," former president Hashemi Rafsanjani - whose hopes to be elected parliamentary speaker seemed dashed when he just squeezed in at number 29 of Tehran's 30 seats - would now indeed "put himself forward as the next speaker," Taheri said.

"In exchange [for these concessions] Mr. Khatami can stay as president, and have a chance to do a little bit of his program."

Taheri backed his claim by pointing out that Khatami has been backing Ayatollah Khamenei's position, and criticizing those in the media "who want to go too fast" towards changing Iranian society.

"All should abide by the constitution and comply with what is enshrined in it, including respect for Islamic precepts, principles of the revolution, Islamic leadership and people's civil rights," the official Tehran Times quoted Khatami as saying.

A spokesman for the reformist coalition closely associated with Khatami said in a statement it was "opposed to any kind of irrational action which may free the hands of the violence-mongers."

And Khatami's minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, who earlier threatened to resign if newspapers were shut down, has now decided to stay on "and has come out trying to justify the closures," Taheri noted.

Now based in the West, Taheri was formerly editor of the leading Kayhan newspaper, which after his departure was transformed into a mouthpiece of "violent, radical Khomeneists."

Taheri's successor as editor, the journalist who changed the paper's stance, was none other than Khatami himself. Ironically, it is now the president who is bashed hardest by his former newspaper - a situation Taheri described as "a self-inflicted wound."

Asked whether he though pro-reform Iranians would respond to the suspension of the newspapers, Taheri noted that demonstrations in support of the reformist media had been small.

"If the fight is inside the establishment, as it is at the moment, Khatami is weak. If it is outside the establishment, popular support is strong, but [ineffective]. It's like bonds or I.O.U.s that cannot be cashed."

A number of journalists also have been arrested or jailed in the current clampdown. One of them, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, was jailed for 30 months after he was convicted on charges of insulting Islamic values and his appeal was turned down.

Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist who fingered senior intelligence officials in the murders of political dissidents, was arrested at the weekend and will be charged with defaming the security forces.

The director of the a paper banned last year, Latif Safari, was also arrested, and other newsmen have been warned to appear before the Revolutionary Council to explain their actions.

How reformist journalists would react to the suspensions of their newspapers, Taheri said, depended on whether they worked within or outside the establishment.

Iranian society, he explained, was divided into categories dubbed "outsiders" (biganeh in Farsi) and "our own" (khodi).

The outsiders faced real risks of torture and maltreatment, and their papers would never re-open once banned.

On the other hand pro-reform khodi journalists, even when punished, were generally well cared for.

Prison for them was made more comfortable by access to television, mobile telephones, and weekend leave. Their newspapers, when restricted or banned, invariably opened again with a new permit issued by the ministry of culture, under a new name.

"Yet if I wanted to publish my books, let alone a newspaper, it would take 20 years. Every year my publisher applies for a permit, and it's refused.

"I'm not saying this critically or in a bitter way, but just to show how it is. I am in favor of these journalists who are fighting, even within the regime. Even that is better than nothing.

"Iranian politics is messy, but on the whole on the right track, I think. I prefer evolution to bloodshed or civil war," Taheri said.

Taheri's book include Holy Terror, a study of Islamist terrorism.