virus: Essay #2

Date: Sun Sep 01 2002 - 18:36:55 MDT

July 17, 2002 No.103
    Iranian Reformists and Judiciary Skirmish Over Press Ban
    on Iran-U.S. Dialogue
    By Ayelet Savyon*
The struggle in Iran between the reformists (members of the
Majlis and journalists) and conservatives who dominate the
centers of power (primarily the Judiciary and the Guardian
Council) is focused on fundamental human rights issues.[1]
The Majlis, which for the first time has a reformist majority, is
trying to push forward political-economic legislation and
initiatives that promote a more pro-U.S. foreign policy. However,
these moves are being blocked by the Guardian Council.[2]
Every few months, the ideological tension between the Majlis and
the Judiciary reaches the boiling point. Recently, it was over the
question of promoting Iran-U.S. relations.[3]
The Public Debate on Iran-U.S. Dialogue
For weeks, the Majlis and the local press focused on the secret
Iran-U.S. talks.[4] When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ruled
that talks with "the Great Satan" were "comparable to treason,"
the Tehran Justice Department rushed to announce that it had
decided to try journalists who promoted dialogue with the U.S.,
claiming that it is based both on Khamenei's directive and on
Iran's Press Law.[5] The reformists protested. President
Khatami did not side with them. He did call for protecting the
Majlis and individual freedoms but at the same time also called
for the protection of "the regime's apparatuses," who attacked the
reformist Majlis.
Opposition to Tehran Justice Department's Decision
I: An Unconstitutional Move
Majlis member and National Security and Foreign Policy
Committee rapporteur Elaheh Koulaie called the justice
department's decision "shocking" and "unconstitutional," since no
entity may encroach on the legislative branch's rights by setting
laws and regulations of its own as the Tehran Justice
Department did, "not even in the name of protecting the
independence and territorial integrity of the country."[6]
Chairman of the Majlis Committee for Legal Matters Nasser
Qavami also called the Justice Department's decision
"unconstitutional," since promoting dialogue with the U.S. is not a
II. An Illegal Move
Muhammad Reza Khatami, deputy Majlis chairman and
brother of President Khatami, stated that the decision was
"illegal and illegitimate," warning that expression of opinions
could not be stopped by force.[8] Majlis Judicial Committee
rapporteur, Muhammad Kazemi, stated that the Press Law
does not deem relations with a foreign country to be a crime.[9]
III. A Move Against Freedom of Expression and Freedom of
Many reactions to the Tehran Justice Department's decision
were based on the claim that it ran counter to the most basic
freedoms of expression and opinion. Culture and Islamic
Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjed Jameie warned against
treading on the red lines of the freedoms of expression and the
press: "¦ Press activities are beyond the authority of provincial
organizations [such as the Tehran Justice Department]."[10]
In this context, Majlis Judicial Committee rapporteur
Muhammad Kazemi discussed both freedom of the press and
legislators' rights: "It is not possible to threaten the newspapers of
this country. According to the Press Law, the press is free to
publish its articles¦ legislators have immunity and responsibility
to discuss all matters, both domestic and foreign."[11]
In an article titled "What is the Red Line?" Nourouz columnist
Hussein Bastani ridiculed the conservatives who banned
discussion of Iran-U.S. relations but had once been involved in the
1987 Iran-Contra scandal with the United States. He wrote: "We
know of only [one] instance in the past 15 years exposed by the
press in which secret talks were held between Americans and
Iranians [but those Iranians belonged to the conservatives¦]. We
do not know why the Tehran justice department's attorney
general engages in restricting reports about talks with the U.S.
instead of investigating whether they were actually conducted
IV. A Move Harming Islamic Principles
Majlis member Koulaie added, "It is a pity that Tehran's Justice
Department is distancing itself from religious teachings... How is
it that a small section of the judiciary can deprive Muslims of
advice from other devout Muslims?"[13]
V. A Move Harming the Principle of Separation of Powers
Some were enraged that the conservatives prevented the reformist
Majlis from discussing issues in its area of jurisdiction “ such as
Iran-U.S. relations “ and tried to limit the Majlis's area of
influence in public matters. Minister Masjid Jameie stated that
Tehran's Justice Department was also encroaching upon the
government's authority using as a pretext Khamenei's declaration
of policy. He said that holding talks with the U.S. is exclusively
within the jurisdiction of the government and the Supreme
National Security Council.[14]
Also, Muhammad Reza Khatami [the President's brother],
insisted that discussing Iranian foreign policy is within the
Majlis's jurisdiction, as well as its duty. "The Majlis," he warned,
"will continue its debate on the matter¦ The Tehran Justice
Department's move will not stop the Majlis from being involved
in this issue."[15]
President Khatami's Reaction
Iranian president Muhammad Khatami, who was recently
forced to apologize to his supporters (primarily students) for
failing to live up to his promises of political and social reform,
only addressed the issues of the power struggles between the
reformists and the judicial system days after the Majlis members
and the reformist journalists set the tone. As always, he spoke out
only after Supreme Leader Khomenei stated that the status of the
Majlis must not be harmed.
The Status of the Majlis
In his speech before the Majlis, Khatami protested the Judiciary's
supremacy over the Majlis and attacked the Judiciary's attempts to
restrict the Majlis's activities. He emphasized the Majlis's
legislative authority and its supervisory authority over other
government bodies: "Despite the independence of the Judiciary,
the Majlis must be fully aware of how people are treated by the
Judiciary just as it has to be fully aware of other ministries'
Khatami complained about the devaluation of the Majlis's status,
particularly in its present session, and railed against the
conservatives' disrespect towards Majlis members: "How come
insulting the parliament has become as good as gold, but insulting
certain other circles [i.e. the conservatives] is regarded as
[damaging] the system?" He also complained about his own
weakness, being responsible for supervising the proper
implementation of the constitution, yet having no power to punish
those who violate the constitution.
Khatami is a faithful son of the Islamic Revolution who supports
the country's Islamic regime and does not wish to be seen by the
conservatives as seeking to create a new order based solely on
democracy. Walking a tightrope between reformists and
conservatives, Khatami proposed that a committee be established
to examine the recent tension between the Majlis and the
Judiciary, suggesting that the committee would have the authority
to punish - "indiscriminately" “ both those harming the reformist
Majlis, and those harming the Guardian Council and the
The Status of the Press
Khatami also spoke of newspapers being shut down and of
journalists being prosecuted by the Judiciary.[18] The journalists'
crimes, said Khatami, must be heard "before special courts with
special juries, since one side of such quarrels is a strong political
system [referring to the Judiciary] while the other side is a weak
individual¦ Such a jury must represent the conscience of the
larger society; otherwise, the constitution is obviously violated."
Khatami added that no newspaper should be tried in the absence
of such a jury and stated that any verdict handed out without such
a jury would be invalid. He asked: "Which inflicts heavier damage
to Islam “ an article with limited readership, or the
misadministration of a political system [i.e. the Judiciary's
measures]? The latter, I am certain, [inflicts heavier damage]
since it can make the youth hate the entire religion."[19]
The articles in the press regarding U.S.-Iranian dialogue have
abated. It happened not only because of the restrictions on
reporting it by Tehran's Justice Department, but also because
the political system became occupied with other political storms.
Such a storm was the call issued by an Iranian liberal intellectual,
Dr. Hashem Aghajeri's to reform the Shi'a so as to separate
religion from state and to limit the clerics powers to run the
government. Another such storm was Ayatollah Jalal Al-Din
Taheri's resignation loudly criticizing the regime's corruption and
*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] Such as freedom of the press, freedom to criticize the regime,
and the struggle for genuine separation of authorities, as is
accepted in democratic governments. During the past two years,
the conservative-controlled court system has shut down some 80
newspapers, and imprisoned or placed under investigation dozens
of journalists. Recently measures were taken against journalist
Ahmad Zeidabadi whose "social rights" were revoked. The trials
of Mohsen Mirdamadi, Majlis member and editor of the
reformist paper Nourouz, and senior Majlis members are now
underway; and the prominent reformist paper Bonyan was
closed by court order.
[2] For example, promoting the Press Law “ establishing the
status of the journalist and freedom of expression; the Election
Law “ establishing the involvement of conservative supervisory
bodies in the election process and, in effect, reducing their
involvement and authority in approving the candidacy of
reformists; and economic laws aimed at encouraging capital
investment in Iran.
[3] Another notable Judiciary attempt to hobble the Majlis was in
December 2001, when Majlis member Hussein Loqmanian was
jailed for three weeks for criticizing conservative institutions
during a Majlis debate. The incident, the first of its kind, sparked
a major rupture between the reformist Majlis and the conservative
Judiciary, which was resolved only by intervention of Supreme
Leader Khamenei who ordered Loqmanian's immediate release.
Other Majlis members are also facing prison sentences, but in the
meantime they remain free so as to avoid exacerbating the
[4] Mohsen Mirdamadi, who also heads the Majlis National
Security and Foreign Policy Committee which discussed the
advantages of Iran-U.S. talks, insisted in committee hearings that
such talks had indeed been conducted in Cyprus in recent weeks
by foreign ministry personnel and with the approval of Supreme
Leader Khamenei himself. The Iranian foreign ministry
emphatically denied that the talks had taken place (IRNA, May 6,
2002; May 11, 2002). Mirdamadi himself said: "We must direct
our policy [towards the U.S.] in accordance with the needs of the
time¦ In the past, hostility to the U.S. suited our interests, but
this is not the case today¦ Our interests today lie in openness
towards the U.S." (Al-Ayyam, Palestinian Authority, May 9,
[5] Khamenei's speech, IRNA, May 22, 2002. Tehran Judicial
Department communiqué, IRNA May 25, 2002.
[6] Iran Daily, May 27, 2002.
[7] Nourouz, May 27, 2002.
[8] Nourouz, May 27, 2002.
[9] Iran (Farsi), May 27, 2002.
[10] Nourouz, May 27, 2002, IRNA, May 27, 2002.
[11] Iran (Farsi), May 27, 2002.
[12] Nourouz, May 27, 2002
[13] Iran Daily, May 27, 2002.
[14] Nourouz, May 27, 2002; IRNA, May 27, 2002.
[15] Nourouz, May 5, 2002.
[16] IRNA, May 28-29, 2002; Nourouz, May 29, 2002.
[17] IRNA, May 28-29, 2002; Nourouz, May 29, 2002.
[18] Iran has separate courts for press affairs.
[19] IRNA, May 28-29, 2002; Nourouz, May 29, 2002.

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