Inside Iran, moderates battle hard-line Muslims

Killing of aged couple by government agents galvanizes dissidents

February 24, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEHRAN, Iran -- Nearly every Thursday since a rogue band of Iranian intelligence agents brutally murdered an elderly dissident and his wife last fall, mourners have trooped to the couple's house to light memorial candles and sing a song of freedom.

The fatal stabbings of Daroush and Parvaneh Foruhar and the murders of three other intellectuals shook Iranian hopes that President Mohammad Khatami would easily overcome challenges to his moderate government and reform the Islamic republic.

They also shook the hopes of those who want to restore good relations between Iran and the West.

"We have a dictatorship in our society," said Samira Keshavarz, 23, a cousin of the slain Foruhar. "Our youngsters are after real freedom, not just in words."

The violence highlighted the battle raging between Khatami's supporters in the government and conservative clerics empowered by Islamic rule.

It also generated an unusually candid public debate in Iranian newspapers and among leading intellectuals that pressured the government to act against the extremists here.

Despite the public outcry over the murders late last year of Foruhar and his wife, both members of a minor opposition party, the assaults on Khatami's populist platform from conservative factions and vigilantes continued. Pro-democracy demonstrationswere broken up; some leftist newspapers were shut down.

On Feb. 11, the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Islamic republic, a mob in the holy city of Qom beat Hadi Khameni, a press adviser to Khatami, as he was to deliver a speech in a mosque. The attack on Khameni stood out because the 51-year-old newspaper owner is the brother of Iran's supreme leader, hard-liner Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

Khatami, the philosopher cleric, vigorously pursued the vigilante elements who beat up his aide and the intelligence agents accused of the Foruhars' murders. Arrests were made in both cases.

In a startling admission, the intelligence minister, Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, conceded that members of his agency were involved in the Foruhars' murders and he resigned.

"This is the first time in Iranian history that the intelligence ministry is accepting that they did this. So accountability is being built on this," said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.

Yet the power struggle continues between Khatami -- who commands popular support -- and the clerics backing rightist leader Khameni, in whom the constitution invests supreme authority.

A test of strength will occur Friday when Iran holds the first municipal elections in its modern history.

Khatami and his supporters in the government set the local elections as a cornerstone of his agenda to promote a civil society and the rule of law. He is implementing a hitherto unused constitutional provision for municipal elections -- but not without a fight.

Candidates for local election must be approved by a supervisory board that is controlled by the hard-line clerics. Several pro-Khatami candidates in Tehran, Iran's bustling, sophisticated capital, were disqualified by the board because it doubted the candidates' allegiance to Islamic rule.

Khatami helped broker a compromise -- the candidates were permitted to state in writing their commitment to Islam and the country's supreme clerical rule. Still, the board rejected prominent pro-Khatami candidates.

Interest in the elections is high. In Tehran, 4,000 candidates are vying for 15 council seats. The city is papered with campaign posters, including those of women candidates cloaked in the Islamic cape-like covering known as a chador.

Campaign workers are handing out leaflets on the street corners of Tehran. Candidates are using catchy slogans and advertising in newspapers.

One ad features a candidate in a necktie -- a sign of the West that would have been unthinkable in the recent past, said Hadian, the political scientist.

The same campaign activity is being played out in villages and small towns.

Ahmed Molaii, a 32-year-old lab technician, is running for the city council in Dastgerd, a village on the outskirts of the central Iranian city of Esfehan.

Molaii's campaign issues sound like those you'd hear from a local Maryland candidate: school construction, recreation facilities, a 24-hour health clinic, jobs for youth. His party's campaign slogan sounds oddly familiar -- "Of People. With People. For People."

Ibrahim Yazdi, an architect of the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979, today is a leading opposition figure pushing for democratic reform.

"It is coming in Iran but on our own terms," said Yazdi, an American-educated molecular geneticist who heads the Freedom Movement party. "Even if the rightists win, even with this unfair, illegal screening procedure the mere fact they are going to implement the law and create these municipal councils, we consider it a move forward."

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