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posted January 18, 2001 09:18     Click Here to See the Profile for Vatandoost   Click Here to Email Vatandoost     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The Washington Post

Wednesday, January 17, 2001
Page A16

FOR MOST of the past three years, an intense struggle has been going on inside Iran between moderate would-be political reformers, led by the popular elected president, Mohammad Khatami, and the hard-line clerical elite around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme spiritual leader. At stake have been not only tentative steps toward more democracy and greater civil liberties in that militantly Islamic state but also the normalization of Iran's relations with the West after two decades of
well-earned treatment as a rogue nation.

Sadly for the West, and for Iran, the hard-liners now clearly have gained the upper hand in this see-saw battle. The latest and grimmest evidence came last weekend, when Tehran's revolutionary court sentenced at least seven leading members of the reform movement to lengthy prison terms, and another one to death, for participating in a conference in Berlin last April. Among those imprisoned was Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading
investigative journalist, who had exposed killings by death squads of other journalists and critics; dissident cleric Hasan Yousefi-Eshkevari, who received a death sentence; two feminist leaders; an economist; and a translator for the German Embassy in Tehran, who received a 10-year sentence.

Ironically, the dissidents were all charged with attending a conference called to consider the prospects for political liberalization in Iran following the resounding victory of Mr. Khatami's supporters in parliamentary elections; their alleged crime consisted in part of having
been present when several Iranian exiles broke into the meeting room and partially disrobed or danced as a protest.

The verdicts were only the most recent of a string of blows to Mr. Khatami by the clerical hard-liners and the judiciary they control. A key ally, Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, was forced to resign and was replaced last week by another conservative. Dozens of reformist newspapers have been shut down in recent months, and most of the reform legislation
passed by the new parliamentary majority, such as a measure raising the minimum age for marriage by girls from 9 to 14, has been vetoed by the clerical Guardian Council. A discouraged Mr. Khatami confessed last month
that "in practice" he was "unable to stop the trend of violations or force implementation of the constitution," and it remains unclear whether he will seek reelection as president this May.

The hard-liners' offensive presents the West with something of a dilemma. To varying degrees, both the European Union and the United States have sought to encourage Mr. Khatami's liberalization program.

The court verdicts, which sanction a meeting organized by a branch of Germany's Green party, are a direct affront to Europe's "constructive engagement" policy -- but a harsh response might only play into the hands
of the clerics and weaken Mr. Khatami still further.

To a large extent, Europe and the United States can do little more than watch from the sidelines as the political struggle plays out in the coming six months. But Western leaders can make one thing clear: If the political
reform movement dies, so will Iran's hopes of regaining international acceptance, and the trade and investment that come with it.

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