Expert Detects Backlash against Iranian Reformists

Oct 06, 1999

Reported by Haleh Esfandiari

When Stephen Fairbanks came to the Wilson Center in August, he predicted that the moderates in Iran, grouped around President Khatami, had a good chance to advance their reform program, despite the resistance of the conservative factions led by Ayatollah Khamenei.

What a difference a few months makes. When Fairbanks returned to the Center in early October, he was a great deal less convinced than earlier that the conservatives are ready for changes leading to a more open political system, a free press, and free elections. According to his most recent observations, Iran's conservative faction has been actively blocking important political and social reforms.

In some sense, Fairbanks explained, the situation is the same as that seen a few months ago. The conservatives, motivated by fear of losing their hold on the affairs of state, promulgate the notion that the reformists are undermining Islamic values and the Islamic state and are "outside" the system. But what is new is the fact that the conservatives are not shying away from taking drastic measures to halt the reform. In recent months, they have closed down several of the reformists' newspapers and tabled laws in parliament limiting the freedom of the press and reinforcing the powers of the Council of Guardians, which has been given the task of approving the credentials of candidates running in the parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2000.

Fairbanks cautioned against overgeneralizing. Neither the reformists nor the conservatives speak with one voice, he said. While many conservatives are attacking President Khatami and his policies, their leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in a recent sermon extended his full support to the president. And while many moderates support former President Rafsanjani as a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, others oppose his candidacy.

Thus, despite the recent setbacks suffered by the moderate camp, Fairbanks believes it is too soon to talk about a Tiananmen Square kind of suppression in Iran.

As head of the RFE/RL Farsi Language Service, Fairbanks has daily and direct access to a wide range of news and views coming out of Iran, much of it gathered by the radio's Iran-based correspondent. Fairbanks said that despite the criticism of the radio by Ayatollah Khamenei and another leading cleric, Ayatollah Janati, who called on people not to talk to Radio Liberty, a number of influential Iranians talk to the radio on a daily basis, including well-known journalists, editors, newspaper publishers, and politicians.

The radio is currently broadcasting two hours of programming a day and is planning to increase this to three hours. The radio covers not only political developments in the country but also cultural and social events.

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