Iran's powerful conservatives, still reeling from their overwhelming defeat in last February's Parliament elections, took aim on Sunday at their most powerful and persistent foe: the independent, reformist press.
In a heavy blow to the reform movement, the conservative-dominated judiciary ordered the closure of 12 leading reformist newspapers. The attack on the press marks the most dramatic act in a stepped-up campaign by the country's conservatives to slow down the democratic reform process led by President Mohammad Khatami.
In the past two weeks, a conservative-dominated election supervisory body annulled three reformist Parliament election victories, the conservative-led Revolutionary Guards military issued a chilling statement threatening reformists, and Iran's conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei portrayed the reformist press as "enemies of Islam."
The closings stunned reformist journalists, and angered many Tehran residents, who found out about the closures Monday morning as they gathered ritually at newsstands. "I am shocked," one Tehran resident said. "I can't believe they did this." In protest, he bought several copies of the reformist dailies that escaped the ban.
Shutting down reformist newspapers is nothing new, but never before have so many newspapers been targeted in one action, indicating high-level support for the move from senior conservative officials.
After President Khatami's election victory in May, 1997, Iran's normally staid, conservative press was shaken up by the appearance of a new breed of brash, pro-democracy dailies that promoted civil society, democracy, political pluralism, and religious reform. The reformist dailies also boldly attacked conservative policies and political figures, making them wildly popular among Iranians frustrated by years of conservative economic mismanagement and political repression.
At press time, there were no organized protests of the sort that normally occur after reformist newspapers are closed. Last summer, protests against the closing of a liberal paper, the daily Salam, led to police clashes and spiraling violence that rocked the Islamic Republic for six days.
Still, tensions are currently high in Iran, and the country's security agencies are reportedly on full alert. The attack on the reformist press comes amid a tense moment in Iran as three incidents of spontaneous protest erupted in disparate parts of the country -- the northwest, the south, and north-central, -- in the past two weeks.
Two weeks ago, the small northwestern city of Khalkhal erupted in violence after their election of a reformist Parliament candidate was annulled. "We heard the news at 9:00 P.M on television. By 9:15 P.M, an angry mob had formed in the city center," one Khalkhal resident told this reporter. What followed in Khalkhal was a series of spontaneous attacks on government institutions, including the homes of conservative clerics affiliated to the Guardians Council, the state body that annulled the election. "We also attacked the theological school," the resident said.
Despite the fact that reform-minded publications advocated non-violent protest, the breathless reports carried by the reformist press about the Khalkhal events apparently angered conservatives.
Shortly after the Khalkhal incident, a confrontation between a member of Iran's self-appointed but powerful "morals police" and a young couple led to two days of street fighting in the north-central city of Rasht. Iran's hard-line Basij Islamic militia mounts regular street patrols to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law, which prohibits alcohol consumption, dating, male-female physical contact, and "immodest" dress for women.
Though their policing has been reduced drastically since Khatami's election, the Rasht incident proves that it has not halted entirely. More importantly, the Rasht incident reveals the simmering anger of the average Iranian and a new willingness to fight back against powerful conservative forces. When the Basijis confronted the "offending" youth, they found themselves surrounded by an angry crowd urging them to leave the young man alone. Heated words were exchanged, which led to violence. "We told them that their days of tyranny are over," one bloodstained anti-Basiji youth told witnesses.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Sarvestan, angry crowds blocked roads after the Guardians Council annulled the election of a reformist candidate. Tellingly, Sarvestan protesters held up reformist newspapers to bolster their cause.
In a sense, many of the recent uprisings originate from the climate of freedom of expression ushered in by Khatami, with its most visible daily manifestation in the reformist press. All over Iran, newspaper readers nod their heads in agreement at editorials criticizing "conservative tyranny," or articles protesting interference in personal lives. Emboldened and, in some cases, educated by these newspapers, many Iranians are showing an increasing willingness to defy what they formerly accepted as undefiable.
The crowds that supported the Rasht young man and the angry mob that took to the streets in Khalkhal are examples. What remains to be seen is if the newspaper closings will muzzle this newfound defiance or increase it?
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.