Campaign against liberal media boosted by Khamenei's intervention

TEHRAN, Iran - Bolstered by an order from Iran's supreme leader that undercut hopes of greater press freedom, hard-liners arrested a liberal journalist and shut down a reformist newspaper on Monday.

Outside parliament, hundreds of hard-liners gathered to chant praise for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and demand that pro-reform legislators be expelled.

''Death to opponents of absolute jurisprudence. ... We are ready to give our life for Imam Khamenei,'' shouted the hard-line protesters, many of them wearing the chafieh, a cloth usually draped on the shoulders by the hard-line Ansar-e-Hezbollah group.

The tension threatened to worsen a political rift between Khamenei, the supreme religious leader, and supporters of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

The president's supporters had pushed for laws guaranteeing greater press freedom, but debate on the legislation was halted on Sunday on orders from Khamenei. His intervention touched off scuffles in the legislature.

In Washington, the State Department said it had ''very serious concerns'' over the suspension of debate on the bill. But spokesman Richard Boucher said the loosening of U.S. trade restrictions with Iran, passed in February, would not be reversed.

Using powers granted by the restrictive press law the reformers had hoped to amend, plainclothes security forces arrested journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi at his home Monday.

Zeidabadi's cousin, Yasser Bayenat, told The Associated Press the arrest was believed related to articles Zeidabadi published last year in reformist newspapers.

Also Monday, the pro-reform weekly Cheshmeh Ardebil in northwestern Iran was ordered closed for four months on charges of ''disturbing public opinion'' and ''insulting Islamic sanctities,'' the daily Abrar reported.

Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian political analyst, said the fight over press freedom and Khamenei's intervention in parliament could have far-reaching repercussions.

''The struggle between political factions will intensify from now on,'' he said.

Reformers' options appeared limited, and a split appeared to be growing between moderates that want to find a compromise with the hard-liners and the more radical factions that want to vigorously pursue reforms.

In a letter read in parliament Sunday, Khamenei warned that ''if the enemies of Islam and the Islamic system take control of the press or infiltrate it, a big danger will threaten the security and faith of the people.''

''The current (press) law has been somewhat able to prevent this great plague, and amending it is not in the benefit of the establishment,'' he said.

In February elections, Iranian hard-liners lost control of the legislature for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

One of the hard-liners' last undertakings in the previous legislative session was to force through the restrictive press law. The laws have been the basis for a ban on 23 publications - most of them pro-democracy newspapers - and the arrests of several prominent journalists.

Since Khatami's 1997 election, the hard-liners have lost considerable power, but they still retain control of the judiciary, military and television network and are backed by Khamenei, who has the last say on all matters. Though unelected, Khamenei's word outweighs Khatami's.


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