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Iran's Hard-Liners See Old Revolutionaries as Risk

Politics: The arrests of the republic's founding fathers, who support the reform movement, point up the post-1979 split from the Islamists.

June 08, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This former ally of Khomeini spent many years in prison during the shah's reign. Then, in April, he found himself back in prison.

"Unfortunately, it is going back to the manner of the former regime," the longtime dissident said a few weeks after his arrest. He added that the arrest backfired on the authorities: "With this arrest I have become even more popular with the people."

The authorities also hauled off Khosro Mansourian, 60, another founding father of the Islamic state. His family members are concerned because they haven't heard from him since his arrest and are worried about his health.

"I don't think the revolution betrayed them," a close relative said of the Freedom Movement members. "But they did not want someone to be on top and rule. They wanted a change--not just like the shah's regime."

Even as public opinion and top elected officials have castigated the security forces for arresting these men--about 20 remain behind bars--there is little indication that the authorities plan to back off.

This week, they released a purported confession from one of the most well-regarded religious nationalists, Ezzatollah Sahabi, who was sentenced to four years in prison for attending a conference in Berlin that was allegedly aimed at overthrowing the government.

'Confession' Appears to Have Backfired

In a letter intended to add credibility to the hard-line crackdown, Sahabi--who spent about 15 years in prison under the shah--confessed to working with the United States to topple the Islamic system.

"I do not deny that all of my press and political activity in the past years were aimed at discrediting the religious government and to replace it with a nonreligious one," Sahabi said in the letter carried by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

"You are gravely mistaken if you think that I would return to my political life if I survive and am released," he allegedly wrote in the letter, which was addressed to his children.

But like many of the hard-liners' other tactics, this one appears to have backfired as well. Those who know the longtime activist attributed the confession--if he actually wrote it--to psychological pressure at the hands of the authorities.

"The absurdity of extracting a confession from a man so highly regarded, so old, so gentle is obscene," said Farhi, the political analyst. "All it does is undermine the credibility of the regime."

During his four years in office, Khatami has faced many crises with the same calm, restrained manner. Whether it be the arrest and conviction of some of his closest advisors or the shutting down of 40 reform-oriented newspapers, he has never raised his voice or issued a direct challenge to the conservatives.

That has frustrated his supporters, but those close to Khatami say the president believes that this is the price to pay for changing the nature of the debate in Iran: Four years ago, it was whether to pursue reform; today, it is what kind of reform to pursue.

"Naturally, this reform has costs," said Khatami's chief of staff, Mohammed Ali Abtahi. "The cost is not high for what we have gained."

And the arrest and imprisonment of old-timers are part of that price, he said, adding that he is certain they would agree. "These people who were in prison during the shah and were tortured want to achieve a good result."

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