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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 19:44 GMT
Analysis: Where now for Iran's reformists?
Abdollah Nouri in court Abdallah Nouri (left) during his trial

By Jim Muir in Cairo

"Historically, what they're doing is incredible : they're putting each other in jail," was the comment of one amazed Iranian exile.

Iran crisis
He was reacting to news that a veteran Islamic revolutionary cleric, who twice served as Interior Minister, had been led off to prison for five years on the orders of a special religious court in Tehran.

The dramatic prosecution of such a central figure brought out into the open the often veiled struggle at the heart of the Islamic regime, over which way the revolution should turn as it moves into its third decade in a rapidly-changing world.

Abdullah Nouri, perhaps the closest political lieutenant of the reformist President Muhammad Khatami, was very much part of that revolution.

Like other reformists, he is convinced it must adapt and move with the times if it is to survive.

Abdullah Nouri's career
Key aide to Ayatollah Khomeini
Interior minister under presidents Rafsanjani and Kahatmi
Receives massive support in Iran's first municipal election in 1999
Even his grimmest hard-line critics cannot impugn his revolutionary credentials. In the days of Ayatollah Khomeini himself, Mr Nouri was the Imam's trusted representative to such key bodies as the Revolutionary Guards.

In February 1999, Abdallah Nouri proved at the polls what his supporters believed and his conservative detractors feared : that his persecution at the hands of hard-line conservatives had served only to make him more popular with the public.

In the Republic's first-ever municipal elections, he romped home well ahead of the rest of the field.


I was only thinking about God and the nation and saying out loud what the people have kept in their hearts for so long
Abdallah Nouri
Now that he's been jailed in what is widely seen as a highly political rather than a purely judicial move, the reformists - of whom he was the most visible and militant champion - hope that what appears to be a victory for the hard-liners will once again sooner or later backfire against them.

Mr Nouri himself made no such claims, saying that he had done only what he believed was his duty to God and the country rather than courting popularity.

He said, shortly before his sentenced: "I believe God and the interests of the system needed these ideas to be expressed. The issues I mentioned in court will have their effect, but how long that will take, I don't know. What I do know is that there will be change."

Predicting change is a safe bet. Demographics alone make it inevitable. That's why Mr Nouri and other reformists are firmly convinced that history is on their side.

Mr Nouri is a close associate of moderate president Mohammad Khatami President Khatami reacted mildly to the imprisonment of his ally
Already, more than half the Iranian population were born after the revolution, and know nothing of its antecedents under the Shah.

Many young people feel no affinity with the remote, bearded mullahs who run their lives. Nor can any nation nowadays remain immune to the global tides of information that are breaking down barriers all around the world.

During his six lengthy court appearances, Mr Nouri broke many of the taboos which have stifled public debate within the regime on some of the key issues facing the Islamic republic.


The conflict (between conservatives and reformists) must not become explicit, as that would endanger Khatami's reform plan
A liberal commentator in Iran
He attacked the very existence of the special clerical court, which is not mentioned in the constitution but was instituted by Ayatollah Khomeini as a way of disciplining the clergy.

In doing so, Mr Nouri challenged the prerogatives of the Supreme Leader, thereby raising the existential issue at the core of the Islamic republic: should it be a theocracy, with absolute power wielded unquestioned by the Leader? Or a real democracy, with authority coming from the people and all officials - including the Leader - constitutionally accountable to the people?

These thoughts were echoed by another prominent reformist cleric, the Friday prayers leader of Isfahan, Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri (who was appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini himself).

"Nouri revived the dead questions of the revolution," he said. "What Nouri said in court was what everyone knew but would not dare to say.

Mr Nouri is not the first dissident mullah to be silenced by the hard-line establishment. Grand Ayatollah Hosseyn-Ali Montazeri, who was originally designated as Ayaollah Khomeini's successor but was displaced shortly before the Imam's death in 1989, has been under house arrest in Qom for several years.

In April 1999, the same clerical court which jailed Mr Nouri sentenced another prominent reformist cleric, Mohsen Kadivar, to 18 months in prison.

But Mr Nouri is demonstrably the most prominent and popular victim of what the reformists see as a factional abuse of power by hard-line conservatives bent on imposing their own interpretation of the Republic's principles.

Yet his imprisonment, while arousing anger and criticism among liberals, has led neither to an outbreak of violence - which the reformists know would play to their disadvantage - nor to an open confrontation between the two main factions within the regime.

President Khatami himself reacted mildly, voicing regret coupled with only oblique criticism of the clerical court.

His philosophy is one of quiet persuasion, moving society forward together in slow, measured steps, and letting the voice of the people be heard - next, at the crucial general elections in February.

His is not the language of confrontation and factional defeat or victory.

His failure to stage a more robust intervention on behalf of his imprisoned colleague may have disappointed some of the more impatient reformists, but it was understood by others.

"The conflict must not become explicit, as that would endanger Khatami's reform plan," wrote one liberal commentator. "We have taken a big step forward, in that we now imprison our opponents rather than killing them. This is a change, and as long as it is there, Khatami must stay, even if he remains silent."

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Iranian reformist jailed
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