Iran Courts Threaten Freedom

Khatami has opportunity to reassert authority after closure of pro-democracy newspapers

The Apple was a quiet Iranian film, released last year at the New York Film Festival. The documentary about twin 12-year old girls, imprisoned in their home from birth, took the world by surprise. The girls' father, their malevolent "protector," contends in the film that he is shielding his daughters from the forbidden fruit that will lure them away from the right path. The twins flounder, so developmentally and emotionally stunted that they can barely speak.

The Apple told through pictures and parables what it could not have explicitly voiced aloud in a nation still silenced by censors. Produced by 17-year-old director Samira Makhmalbaf, The Apple suggested to the young masses of Iran--youth born after 1979 now comprise over two-thirds of Iran's population--that their generation must find a way to unlock the doors that muffle their voices.

Iran is a country caught between different worlds: the past and the future, theocracy and democracy, the establishment and reform. Reformist President Mohammed Khatami was reelected to office in February with a majority reform government. Iran's youth have placed their hopes for change in him. Yet the judiciary, controlled by conservative clerics, is doing everything in its power to prevent reform. Last week, 16 pro-democracy newspapers were ordered closed by the high courts of Iran. The charge: The papers are suspected of insulting Islam and "spreading corruption." Acting immediately, the courts did not wait to see their accusations validated by a hearing or a trial.

The crackdown was clearly meant to antagonize Khatami and question his authority--his brother is one of the editors of the closed papers. In response, Khatami exercised his seemingly endless store of self-control. He remained silent while others in his government urged university students to avoid confrontations with the authorities. This was not cowardice: Khatami and his government feared riots would give the clergy the excuse it needs to declare Khatami incapable of maintaining national stability. The delicate give and take between the clerics and Khatami's government has been sorely tried since the February election. However, Khatami has been wise not to give the conservative clerics an excuse to seize power, despite their resistance to reform.

This week, 13 Jews arrested last fall on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel come to trial. Their prosecution represents yet another example of the judiciary's effort to abuse its authority. To date, Khatami has deferred to the court's authority on this matter. Yet with the trials following so closely on the heels of the newspaper closings, this could be a critical opportunity for Khatami to reassert his leadership to national and global communities without risking a clerical coup. The youth are clearly behind Khatami and his reform-minded agenda. However, there is always the risk that they will become impatient with Khatami's conciliatory approach and seek more radical change. Despite their restrictive upbringing, they have proven ready to raise their voices against authoritarian rule.

Khatami walks a delicate line, torn between the forces of change and tradition in Iran. He must be intelligent and brave to stand up to the forces of conservatism without risking his place in power. Most importantly, Khatami cannot afford to let his authority continue to be undermined by the conservative clerics. The time is ripe for Khatami to take a stand.