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Analysis: Tough times for Iran reformists

By MODHER AMIN

TEHRAN, May 16 (UPI) -- A prominent reformist member of Iran's parliament predicts tougher times ahead for his colleagues and co-thinkers even as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami seeks to ease pressure on embattled reformists.

Behzad Nabavi -- also a leading member of a main reformist group in the country, the Islamic Revolution Mujahideen Organization -- asserted the "anti-reform front is making every possible effort to defeat the reform camp and President Khatami is, therefore, expected to face tougher times in the near future," according to media reports this week.

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Iran's hard-liners had no specific plan and strategy early on when Khatami won his first presidential election in 1997, Nabavi said. But now they have developed what he called "specified mechanisms" in their attempts to suppress the reform movement.

"We (reformists), as well as President Khatami, have failed to use all our legal capacities, which is indeed a weakness," he said, clearly referring to speculations circulating around a possible call for a national referendum by the reformist-majority parliament in the wake of the intensifying pressure on reformers by powerful conservatives and unelected state bodies.

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He cautioned against an ill-timed "utilization of legal means," however, saying, "we should be careful ... and not do first what we should do last."

Iran's reformists have yet to press their control of the elected bodies such as Parliament, which is in the middle of its four-year term, and the city and town councils on which they often have an absolute majority.

In turn, conservatives control such key institutions as the judiciary, the constitutional watchdog Guardians' Council, the state broadcasting and the security forces.

The reformists argue that greater political and social freedoms are necessary to meet the demands of Iran's younger generation who make up over 50 percent of the 65 million population of the country.

In his remarks last week, Khatami warned conservatives that the youth may distance themselves from religion "if we say Islam is not compatible with freedom of speech and freedom of thought."

And in recent weeks the Iranian president, who won a second term by a landslide majority last June, has twice denounced the suppression of reforms.

Analysts say that, despite his previous reluctance to criticize the establishment publicly, the president's decision to break his silence now appears intended to relieve pressure on his supporters, who increasingly complain of being intimidated through what they claim are illegal procedures.

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Speaking to a group of teachers on May 5, Khatami warned he would resign if he felt the reform movement was unable to make progress.

"If I feel the government has deviated even a little from the path of the Iranian nation's reform movement, I will not remain in the presidential office ... for even a second," the president said.

The outspoken statement was followed by another harsh criticism of hard-line conservatives when Khatami told an audience of young people on May 9 that "national unity (the goal as stated by his opponents) is not achieved by suppressing people's demands."

The warnings come as Khatami has seen many of the early reformist gains during his first term rolled back in the past two years.

Since April 2000 Iran's courts, dominated by hard-line conservatives, have suspended or closed some 82 publications, including 22 newspapers, and jailed scores of journalists, activists, and intellectuals.

In the past month alone, at least two leading reformist newspapers have been closed and five journalists sentenced to jail terms ranging from four months to eight years.

Among the convicted is a senior liberal legislator and the head of the foreign policy and national security committee in the Iranian parliament, Mohsen Mirdamadi, who was sentenced to six months in jail on a series of charges, including libel, insulting state officials, publishing lies and violating elections laws. The key reformist newspaper that Mirdamadi manages, Nouruz, was also banned for six months although it still appears on newsstands pending an appeal verdict.

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Nouruz is known for its criticisms of conservatives and for challenging the veracity of some official statements. In the paper last week, for example, Mirdamadi himself reported he had information Tehran had held secret talks with Washington in an attempt to defuse tensions between the two countries. His claim contradicts Iran's official position of ruling out any negotiations with the United States.

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