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Iran: Radical Right Renews Attacks On Moderate Clerics

By Vahid Sepehri

August 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The reformist Iranian newspaper "Etemad" has described a renewed "round of attacks" on senior clerics regarded as moderately conservative or reformist.

The allegations coincide with verbal salvoes and a threatened lawsuit against the moderate ex-President Mohammad Khatami, and they suggest increasingly bitter partisanship in the run-up to parliamentary elections in March 2008.

But they might also signal right-wing elements' bold use of public criticism to discredit opponents whom they no longer wish to see in the public sphere.

Government critics suggest that right-wing displeasure is behind some of the hostility targeting President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's political opponents.

Influential Targets

The reformist daily "Etemad" reported on August 19 that two prominent clerics are among its recent victims. They are Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi.

The recent attacks on Hashemi-Rafsanjani appear to have been triggered by political memoirs he is publishing in installments. The radical Right believes recent chapters distorted or falsified developments touching on essential aspects of Iran's postrevolutionary image and character. "Etemad" cited an excerpt in which Hashemi-Rafsanjani claimed that officials -- with the approval of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- were planning in 1984 to end the practice of crowds shouting "Death to America" at Tehran's Friday congregational prayers, which are attended by politicians and broadcast on television. "Etemad" reported that the disclosure has prompted unspecified right-wingers to challenge Hashemi-Rafsanjani to rectify his claim and avoid falsely attributing statements to the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The daily asserted that "from [the right-wing] point of view, [Khomeini] never wanted to end the slogan of 'Death to America.'"

"Etemad" also cited verbal assaults against the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Hashemi-Shahrudi. Hashemi-Shahrudi criticized the recent removal of the ministers of industry and of oil, and he suggested it would be better to make good use of public officials than to keep shuffling them. Hashemi-Shahrudi has sought in the past to end abuse and inefficiency within the judiciary, and cuts a mildly conservative figure in Iranian politics. His latest remarks prompted "Iran," a daily close to the executive branch, to report the opening of "a new gateway" of antigovernment criticisms on August 18. "Iran" quoted politicians who defended the president's power to change cabinet members and stressed the separation of powers. The paper quoted a presidential adviser on press affairs, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, as saying that Hashemi-Shahrudi had made a "mistake" in meddling in executive-branch business and should avoid repeating the mistake. It quoted legislator Javad Arianmanesh as asking whether the judiciary had completed all the tasks set out for it in the current five-year development plan. Arianmanesh asked why Hashemi-Shahrudi had not criticized the reformist government in a similar fashion.

"Etemad" noted on August 19 that Hashemi-Shahrudi was criticized more vigorously by a deputy energy minister, Ali Yusefpur, writing in the daily "Siasat-i ruz." Yusefpur said the judiciary is in such an appalling state that it is only natural that the judiciary chief would try and shift attention elsewhere -- and "not [for the] first time."

Yusefpur also ridiculed some of Hashemi-Shahrudi's most widely quoted remarks. Hashemi-Shahrudi has implicitly criticized the government's anti-corruption drive by saying harsh punitive measures that scare investors are themselves an "economic vice" akin to corruption. Yusefpur countered that "extra talk" like Hashemi-Shahrudi's is putting capital to flight. He used Hashemi-Shahrudi's famous description of the judiciary as a "wreck" when he took it over six years ago. Yusefpur accused Hashemi-Shahrudi of "comment[ing] on the change of ministers...instead of reorganizing the state of what can barely be called a wreck today."

Vicious Tone

The tone of the criticism is notable -- it is unlikely that any politician today or in the former Khatami government would use a similar tone with senior right-wing clerics, like Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati or Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. And if they did, it is not difficult to imagine an accompanying lawsuit. "Etemad" observed that "many are inclined to call Hashemi-Shahrudi a new member of the [government] critics' club."

Another cleric facing sharp attacks from the right is former reformist President Khatami. A presidential adviser on clerical affairs, Hojjatoleslam Naser Saqa-i Biria, recently claimed that Khatami has little credibility left and accused him of spreading untruths designed to depict him as a respected figure among the most senior Shi'a clerics in Qom. Saqa-i Biria urged Qom's special clerical court to process a complaint reportedly lodged by some seminarians over Khatami's handshakes with women on trips abroad. Under a strict interpretation of Islamic law, men are not allowed to shake hands with women other than close family members -- with transgressions considered indecent or sexually provocative.

Khatami recently felt obliged to defend foreign trips he has undertaken since the end of his presidency, many of which are intended to promote interfaith dialogue. He said in Tehran on August 18 that he was defending Islam -- "the Islam that defends the rights of humans" and "respects freedom" -- in the face of a growing, irrational Western fear of Islam, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 19. Khatami said those who "love power a lot" in Iran should rest assured that he is not interested in power. He added that "we and those who think like us do not wish to restrict the arena for anyone, but we...declare we do not want our space to be restricted." Khatami said, in a mild-mannered response that is seemingly typical of the reformist camp, that it is the people "who determine the places."

The new round of verbal jabs -- lying somewhere between criticism and insults -- could indicate a sense of security among the radical Right and presidential allies in pushing the boundaries of inquisitorial discourse. They do what the other side cannot -- criticize senior clerics, and in no uncertain terms.

This boldness might eventually yield power -- if the other side is shown to be diffident and unsure, and if it is cowed into political irrelevance. It is presumably easier to remove individuals from power once they are discredited -- just as it may prove easier, reformists fear, to disqualify reformist parliamentary aspirants once they and their figureheads have faced months of verbal attacks questioning anything from their records in government, to their close relations to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, to their loyalty to Khomeini's heritage, to religion or the political system.

Amid these exchanges, the chief of Iran's armed forces joint headquarters, Hasan Firuzabadi, warned on August 18 that some "people are creating a shadow movement against the government." Firuzabadi insisted that "we have to warn internal political factions that are servants of the Islamic revolution that...they have started a shadow current, and not only do not cooperate with Ahmadinejad but do things that are sometimes cooperation with the enemy against the government," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 19. Firuzabadi went on to insist that "everyone must know that this government is loved by the leader and the Iranian people."

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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