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Ataollah Mohajerani

Opening the Door to Cultural Freedom in Post-Revolutionary Iran

May 03, 1998|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam," covers global issues for The Times

TEHRAN — Among Iranian politicians, Ataollah Mohajerani dares to be different--very different. When his nomination as minister of culture and Islamic guidance looked doomed last August, he opted against well-worn revolutionary slogans at his confirmation hearing. Instead, he went on the offensive. "I will oppose almost all the current methods,' he told a Parliament dominated by religious and cultural conservatives. "This is because I believe we must value our artists, writers and filmmakers, as they deserve our respect. We must create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity in all centers of arts and culture . . . to allow the seeds of creativity to blossom."

To the astonishment of many, Mohajerani, a former teacher, diplomat, author and parliamentarian, was confirmed--by a healthy margin. Since then, the culture ministry, in a country with a rich culture dating back more than 2,500 years, has become the agent for the openings in society promised by President Mohammad Khatami after his stunning election upset last year. Mohajerani's post is considered the most important job in setting domestic policy. After all, it was the Cabinet position held by Khatami.

In the past eight months, everything from movies to intellectual discourse--even the revolution's goals--have begun to change. "Concepts such as freedom, democracy and the establishment of social institutions, going back hundreds of years in Western societies, in no way contradict the Islamic faith," Mohajerani said in January.

But Mohajerani's battles against conservatives are far from over. The 12-day detention of Tehran's reformist Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi on graft charges last month is widely viewed as a conservative challenge, through the conservative and independent judiciary, to the new reformist government. "There was consensus among all Cabinet members in expressing regret over the detention of the successful and distinguished mayor," Mohajerani said in a startling public rebuke.

It hasn't always been that way. After the 1979 revolution, culture was a primary target in the drive to rid Iran of what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called "Westoxication." Dozens of Iran's leading writers and artists were imprisoned, silenced, banned or forced to flee.

Now, Mohajerani, 44, has appointed a movie director as his deputy in charge of the film industry. His downtown office is relaxed and modest. He likes to talk with colleagues about his visits to the Louvre, Chartres Cathedral and the Victor Hugo Museum during a trip to France in March. His wife, Jamileh Kadivar, is press advisor to the president. They have three teenage children.

But Iran still has a long way to go. Mohajerani appears to recognize the unspoken limits. In 1991, he wrote a newspaper article suggesting direct talks with the United States. In his confirmation hearing, he said he acknowledged the words and positions of Iran's leadership in opposition to his idea. "The Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] adopted a position on a particular issue," he said, "and we all have the duty to defend it."


Question: You emerged as the spokesman for the government during the recent incident involving the arrest of Tehran's Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi. You criticized the arrest. Why did it happen? And what's next?

Answer: My criticism was voiced on behalf of the government. The government was of the conviction that the judicial process regarding the Tehran municipality case could continue without detention of the mayor. The government was objecting to the way the detention was handled and the basis on which he was detained. But, fortunately, with intervention of the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei], the mayor was released. And the outbreak of a crisis was prevented.

I don't think we will face much problem in the future about this case. It seems to be going in the direction of a good resolution. Our conviction is that the judiciary should continue its work on this file, but the file should not be affected by political motivations.


Q: Will the mayor be tried?

A: The chief of the judiciary announced that the mayor will be put on trial and this is what the government agrees with and the mayor agreed. It will be an open trial. We are confident that they can not prove any charges against the mayor.


Q: In your August speech to Parliament [a confirmation hearing] you said: "If a person worries about everything but freedom, he is neglecting the major issue." Now that you are in office, what are you doing to improve freedom in Iran?

A: The first day I came to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the first measure I took was to lift the ban on two movies which had been banned under the previous minister. They were screened immediately. It was a message to the cinema industry people that there would be a revision in the policies and that the tough measures exercised in the past won't be there anymore.

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