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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Press caught in a power struggle
Iranian women protest against press closures
Reform of the stifling press law would have been popular with Iranians
By Dariush Sajjadi

Iran's parliamentary elections in February 2000 were a great breakthrough for the reformist movement.

The press had a leading role in bringing about the sweeping reformist take-over of parliament.

Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani
Rafsanjani: A master of covert Iranian politics.
This dramatic victory was soon overturned when the defeated conservatives successfully silenced the voices of reform in a campaign led by the conservative-dominated judiciary to ban most of the liberal press.

The decimation of the reformist press began in earnest in May 2000, when the judiciary banned 18 reformist papers.

Though shocking and harsh, this move was only the beginning of a campaign aimed at bringing the reformist movement and its vocal backers in the press to their knees.

Failed reform

The most devastating strategic blow came after the parliament convened. As it had promised to do during the election, the reformist majority tabled a motion to amend a press law that was hastily passed by the outgoing conservative parliament in its final days.

In confronting former president Hashemi Rafsanjani... the reformist press paid no heed to his political influence

The new law would have created an open atmosphere for the press to work free of constricting supervision and control.

But this reform effort was immediately blocked as the parliament began debating the law. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei directly intervened by sending a letter - which Speaker Mahdi Karrubi called "a state order" - to the parliament calling for the bill's immediate withdrawal.

This move pitted Ayatollah Khamenei, constitutionally the most powerful politician in Iran's power pyramid, against the will of Iranian voters as expressed in the parliamentary elections.

'Rafsanjani's revenge'

As all parliamentary bills get final approval from the conservative Guardians' Council and the Expediency Council, both of which were likely to block the bill, Ayatollah Khamenei's intervention was totally unnecessary.

By pressing the Supreme Leader to intervene early on, Mr Rafsanjani avoided being blamed for blocking a new law that would have been hugely popular with Iranians

But the fact that he did intervene was interpreted as a tactical move orchestrated by Chairman of the Expediency Council, and former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a master of covert Iranian politics.

Having faced a humiliating and unexpected defeat in the parliamentary elections after the reformist press led a campaign against him, Mr Rafsanjani spent some time in the shadows contemplating his next move and harbouring a deep grudge against the press.

Avoiding the blame

Political analysts argue that the mass crackdown on the reformist press was the inevitable outcome of the reformist papers' battle with Mr Rafsanjani. In confronting the former president in the lead up to the parliamentary election, the reformist press paid no heed to his political influence.

Had they avoided fighting Mr Rafsanjani and mollified him, they might have reaped some of the benefits of his political power and influence and averted their bitter fate.

A Friday prayers sermon by Mr Rafsanjani in May 2000, in which he defended the Supreme Leader's inalienable right to steer the course of reforms, was an important signal, given his joint meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei and heads of the army and judiciary the night before it.

Mr Rafsanjani would have been aware that the parliament would definitely vote for reform of the press law, and the Guardians' Council would definitely veto it, landing the issue ultimately on his desk as chairman of the Expediency Council.

By pressing the Supreme Leader to intervene early on, Mr Rafsanjani avoided being blamed for blocking a new law that would have been hugely popular with Iranians.

Dariush Sajjadi is an Iranian journalist and political analyst based in the United States.

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