Reform Overruled

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Even by standards in iran, where political showdowns are as regular as Friday prayer, it was a rare scene. As the Speaker of the country's Majlis, or parliament, read aloud a letter by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei killing off a draft bill to ease restrictions on Iran's press, conservative lawmakers descended upon a liberal M.P. In seconds, Iran's reformist-controlled parliament was brawling. Following that debacle on Aug. 6, Iran's hard-line judiciary shut Iran's last major reformist newspaper and jailed four of the country's few remaining independent journalists on various charges of undermining national security and Islam. Khamenei's intervention and the latest crackdown by the judges are heavy blows to the reform movement, which had promised to use its February election victory as a lever for change in President Mohammed Khatami's Iran.

The shuttering of the daily Bahar, with Khamenei's words to parliament as pretext — "It will be a great danger to national security" to permit infiltration of the press by "enemies of the Islamic Revolution" — was a defining moment in the reformists' struggle to democratize Iran. They had promised that resuscitating the nation's press would be their legislative priority after 21 publications were shut at Khamenei's behest in April. When parliament convened in May, for the first time they had the numbers to make good on that promise. But their failure to pass a modest bill easing press restrictions raises fears that the reformists' more ambitious promises to open Iranian society will be similarly doomed.

President Khatami's movement to create a more democratic Iran has always been opposed by the clerical hard-liners, but never since the 1979 revolution has the constitutional right of the parliament to debate and pass legislation been challenged. That such a right has been overturned has to do with the fact that power is vested both in popular rule — the parliament — and in the absolute religious authority of the Supreme Leader. The latter's decisions are not subject to votes, and reformists know that Khamenei's letter overruling them bolsters conservatives' ability to block their agenda.

The hard-line Council of Guardians, which reviews parliamentary legislation, suggested last week that M.P.s who failed to show allegiance to Khamenei could be kicked out of parliament. Rajabali Mazrui, a pro-reform M.P. from Isfahan, retorted that such threats were unconstitutional and were intended to create an atmosphere of intimidation.

Meanwhile, the judiciary is proving an even sharper thorn in the reformist side than the Supreme Leader. Its conservative clerics routinely use the law aggressively to intimidate pro-reform activists, journalists, and politicians. Hope flickered briefly last week when a top judge declared that he does not support a policy of banning publications. But the very next day another journalist was arrested on various charges, including insulting the state and provoking public opinion.

Until now, Iran's two main authority figures — Khatami and Khamenei — have managed to agree to disagree in a way that satisfied both of their constituencies. But Khamenei's heavy-handed letter forbidding debate when plenty of legal maneuvers existed to freeze the bill without his personal intervention now reveals him as a contestant, rather than a parliamentary overseer. Some reformists believe Khamenei was convinced by his inner circle that the independent press had it in for him personally. Articles in recent months obliquely criticizing religious tyranny did not help to dispel that fear.

Reacting to the parliamentary debacle, the normally silent President Khatami was moved to uncharacteristic frankness. He warned against "unrealistic expectations" at a student group's meeting. But curiously, the running aground of their campaign and the loss of any means to communicate directly with the millions who elected them don't leave reformists in despair. They have learned to find their way out of such entanglements in the past, insists pro-reform representative Mazrui, who angered conservatives when he demanded clarification of Khamenei's diktat on the floor of parliament.

But although the latest setback may not have cowed reformers, who have settled in for the long fight, the question remains: How long will Iranians be patient with a movement that promises progress in trickles, but can only deliver it in drops?