Iran's supreme leader ayatullah ali Khamenei has been reluctantly tolerant of his country's burgeoning liberal press. But then something snapped. In a public tirade, the conservative cleric denounced the upstarts for giving succor to Iran's foreign enemies. Then last week, amid rumors of a hard-line coup, his government shuttered 16 reformist newspapers and magazines in the most sweeping crackdown since the liberal press first blossomed after President Khatami's election three years ago. The blow to one of the most visible gains of Khatami's struggle to remake Iran into a more tolerant state that respects the rule of law raised fears that a similar fate may await Iran's new reformist-controlled parliament, elected in February.
The crackdown was perhaps inevitable. But the timing is suspect: by stopping the presses on the eve of the new parliament, hard-liners can now continue to undo electoral returns without fear of criticism. Since February the Council of Guardians — the government body which supervises elections and reviews parliamentary legislation — has annulled a total of 11 reformist electoral victories, thereby reducing the margin of the reformist majority in parliament.
The reformist press has been a major thorn in the hard-liners' side, questioning the present and past competence of the revolutionary regime and displaying an irreverence that has alienated most senior clerics, who are frequently referred to by their first names without adding the title ayatullah. They have also probed the regime's darker side. Last month the daily Asr-e Azadegan published allegations that a secret force in the government had masterminded the assassination attempt on Saeed Hajjarian, one of the key architects of Khatami's reform program. The author of that article, Imaddeddin Baghi, has been hauled before the courts and is expected to join fellow editor Akbar Ganji in prison; Ganji was jailed last week after the daily Sobh-e Emrouz ran his exposes probing alleged hard-line links to a series of political assassinations. The judiciary has already summoned most of the country's leading journalists to court, and two weeks ago one of the reformists' most courageous editors, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, began a two-and-a-half-year sentence for publishing an article that the court deemed "insulting to Islamic values."
Only two dailies escaped the first wave of the crackdown, both apparently because their publishers seemed off limits at the moment: one, Hajjarian, publisher of the daily Sobh-e Emrouz, is in hospital recuperating from a bullet wound to the head, while the other, Mohammed Reza Khatami, publisher of the daily Mosharekat, is the President's brother.
Oblique attacks on the press began well in advance of the crackdown. One of the few remaining government organizations still firmly under hard-line grasp — the state television body, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting — joined the offensive when it broadcast edited footage of a conference in Berlin that featured prominent reformists looking on while opposition exiles protested by dancing and stripping. Though Khamenei himself may have scripted the attack on the press, reformists believe some of his harsh moves against them come as a result of pressure from a cadre in the hard-line's right wing. Reformist journalists have faced prison for suggesting that this power Mafia, directed by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has masterminded the string of political crises following the elections. Pressed on one side by reformist critics who believe the supreme leader should be democratically accountable, and the right wing, which is comfortable governing without popular mandate, Khamenei must arbitrate delicately between the competing establishment factions.
That explains why, in a speech in which he gave a virtual green light to the press coup, Khamenei also warned the right wing against the use of illegal violence. And abiding by the rule of law, hard-liners attacked the press legally rather than sending in the volunteer militia. In a symbolic and rare meeting with reformist leaders, Khamenei condemned political strains that had equated his anti-press rhetoric with opposition to Khatami.
In the editorial offices of the frozen liberal press, journalists last week offered their editors condolences rather than copy. At Fath, the atmosphere more resembled a campaign war room, as editor-in-chief Ali Hekmat conferred with newly elected M.P. Ali Reza Nouri, whose brother, dissident cleric Abdollah Nouri, used to run the daily Khordad before he was imprisoned and the paper was shut down and resurrected as Fath. Besieged newspapers are natural to a reform movement under fire. But if a liberal parliament convenes later this month, Khatami will be expected to protect the press he helped create. Whether he can deliver may become the newest question facing his maturing movement.