- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

TEHRAN Iran's supreme religious leader bluntly challenged the authority of the new reform-oriented parliament yesterday, invoking his extraordinary powers to block consideration of a landmark bill to protect the news media.

It was the first time since Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assumed power 12 years ago that he directly opposed the will of the elected Majlis, or parliament, which was captured for the first time by reformers in February elections.

His action to quash the press bill on the new parliament's opening day of legislative business set off bitter shouting among deputies, with at least one member having to be physically restrained.

The pro-reform legislators, humbled at being defeated before they could even begin debate on their first bill, retreated into caucuses to discuss their next moves.

Analysts said that with universities on vacation and many reform leaders in jail, street protests were unlikely.

But a Western diplomat said the citizens "are fed up, and there could be trouble very quickly."

"This is people power at work. They can stop reforms temporarily, but it won't stop it."

The diplomat, who declined to be identified, said the clerical leaders "have upped the stakes quite a bit" by opposing the will of the Majlis, which was elected in February by 20 million people.

"It's the most serious event since student riots last summer, and it could be much more serious than that," the diplomat said.

The deputies had arrived for their first day of legislative business planning to vote on amendments to a press law that has been used to close 22 publications and arrest dozens of journalists this year.

But Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a revolutionary cleric turned reformer who was appointed in a compromise vote, informed them that the bill had been removed from the agenda in response to a letter from Ayatollah Khamenei.

In an unprecedented act of defiance, some of the legislators demanded that the letter be read aloud, provoking shouts of "You must obey" from one robed cleric and angry remarks from others.

Finally the letter was read.

"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," Ayatollah Khamenei's letter said.

It said the current law, passed in the final days of the defeated hard-line parliament, "has been somewhat able to prevent this great plague, and amending it is not in the benefit of the establishment."

When the speaker tried to move on to other business, angry cries of "shut up" filled in the hall, with clerics and lay members from both the hard-line and reform camps pushing and shouting and waving their arms in anger. No punches were thrown.

Officials afterwards demanded that press photographers hand over their film of the melee. They even body-searched female reporters to make sure no photos would be made public. However the session was broadcast live on government radio and was heard by much of the nation.

Reform legislator Jalil Sazgarnegad said later in the halls of the parliament, "We will face lots of ups and downs I do not see this as a blow. We can defend people's rights by approving other laws.

"We already have some newspapers that reflect public opinion and some new ones will be published."

The reformers had hoped that the end of press repression would be the cornerstone of their movement to change the society and politics built by clerics after the pro-American Shah Rezi Pahlavi was ousted in 1979.

With the press unmuzzled, reformers had intended to press ahead with a larger movement designed to restore private enterprise and open the economy.

Economist Ali Rashidi, who once taught at Northern Virginia Community College and helped run Iran's central bank, has formed a group that is training the reform legislators on how to write new laws.

He said their priorities included laws to reform elections; end government control over industry, banks and insurance; end the power of the revolutionary courts; and wrest from the clerics control over the judiciary, which has led persecution of the press.

Few Iranians dare to openly oppose Ayatollah Khamenei, who controls the security forces and courts. They also fear mysterious thugs who have killed intellectuals and nearly killed a key aide to reformist President Mohammad Khatami recently.

But the desire for change is reaching deep into key institutions of power. Even the Revolutionary Guards, the young shock troops of the revolution, voted overwhelmingly for the reformers in the February elections.

The diplomat said mobs have beaten up "basijis," or religious police, who tried to tell young people not to hold hands or women to cover their hair completely.

The head of the army was replaced after he reportedly told Mr. Khatami that he sided with him and the reformers, the diplomat said. The sympathies of the army staff still are believed to lie with reform.

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