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Sunday, 26 May, 2002, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Iran bars debate on US ties
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei has ruled out talks with the US

Iran's Justice Department has issued a ruling making it a criminal offence for any newspaper to carry material advocating negotiations with the United States.

The decision has sparked an angry reaction among Iranian reformists - with one reformist newspaper describing the ruling as "illegal".


To forbid society officially to express opinions on any issue has a clear meaning, and will have negative effects on society

Norouz newspaper
A reformist deputy, Elaheh Koulai, told the parliament that it was "a step towards despotic behaviour and order".

The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week publicly attacked the advocates of negotiations with the US, and effectively ruled out official talks.

Under Iran's Islamic system, he has the final say on all major issues.

But, in a country with democratic aspirations, it is almost without precedent for the judiciary to notify newspapers that a certain topic is off limits even for discussion.

Hottest issue

That is what the Tehran Justice Department did on Saturday, when it told newspapers they would be committing a criminal offence if they carried items favouring the idea of talks with the US.

Protesters burn a US flag in Tehran
Some reformists have called for dialogue with the US

The issue is currently the hottest item on, or some would clearly have it, off the Iranian political agenda.

The Justice Department circular pointed out that only Ayatollah Khamenei had the power to decide on such important issues.

The leader made his views clear last week, when he said that even to discuss the matter was "an insult to the Iranian people", while actual negotiations would amount to "treason and stupidity".

The Justice Department said as the Ayatollah had spoken, newspapers publishing dissenting views would be committing a crime.

The publication of material not in line with national interests could incite public opinion and damage the authority of the Islamic system, the statement warned.

Legal challenge

But one of the main reformist newspapers, Norouz, took sharp issue with the judicial warning.

It challenged its legality, arguing that only the parliament has the right to formulate legislation, while the interpretation of existing laws was the domain of individual and, in principle, independent judges in the courts.

President Mohammed Khatami
President Khatami is warning against dictatorship

"Those who issued this statement apparently did not pay sufficient attention to its domestic and international consequences," the paper said.

"To forbid society officially to express opinions on any issue has a clear meaning, and will have negative effects on society". it added.

It was not clear whether the Justice Department circular had the full backing of the national judiciary or was a local initiative by enthusiastic Tehran officials eager to please the Ayatollah or to build on his outburst last week.

Defusing tension

Many - but not all - reformists and some moderate conservatives believe it is in Iran's interest to open a dialogue with the US despite President George W Bush's inclusion of the country as part of his "axis of evil".

They argue that it is better to defuse tensions now than to wait until later, when a possible US move against neighbouring Iraq would further step up the pressure on Tehran.

They have tried to keep the issue alive as an item of national debate - a debate some hard-liners are apparently determined to stifle.

If the Tehran Justice Department's ruling is confirmed as official judiciary policy, reformists will clearly be outraged at what they see as blatant suppression of one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution.

It will significantly increase the contradictory pressures building up within the Islamic regime.

President Mohammad Khatami - the main symbol of the reformists - said pointedly only last week that the Iranian revolution had happened because people wanted an Islamic Republic, not an Islamic dictatorship.

See also:

05 May 02 | Middle East
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
21 Feb 00 | Middle East
08 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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