In Iran, the name Abbas Abdi is inextricably linked with the word "reform." Although he's now a key ally of President Mohammad Khatami and an advocate of opening a dialogue with the United States, Abdi first made his name as a revolutionary student leader in the 1979 US embassy siege. Twenty years later, student protests and massive civil unrest broke out around Abdi again, when hard-liners shuttered the prominent reformist paper he edited. So it is in keeping with Abdi's symbolic stature that he is under fire in the latest conservative assault on the reformist opposition. On November 4, 2002--the twenty-third anniversary of the embassy takeover, no less--Abdi was taken from his home and charged with espionage.
At the heart of his case is a poll that he and fellow detainees Behrouz Geranpayeh and Hossein Ghazian conducted for the reformist-dominated Parliament late last year. In a country that calls the United States the Great Satan and finds itself on the receiving end of that "axis of evil" barb, the findings were explosive. Nearly 75 percent of those polled favored dialogue with the United States, and 46 percent felt that American policy toward Iran was "to some extent correct."
The conservative judiciary struck back with a vengeance, accusing the pollsters of funneling information to foreign intelligence agencies and tampering with the poll data. But the three men may be guilty of nothing more than their reformist associations--ties that make them enticing targets for conservatives hungry to demoralize a weakened opposition and consolidate power.
The trouble began this past fall, after Iran's state news agency, IRNA, published the poll findings. By the first week of November, the judiciary had closed down both of the polling institutes that had spearheaded the study. The pollsters soon found themselves in solitary detention, while the judiciary targeted the head of the IRNA for publishing the findings and even accused a parliamentarian of illegally diverting state funds to the researchers.
Much to the dismay of members of Khatami's party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, notoriously conservative judge Said Mortazavi is presiding over the hearings of the pollsters' cases. Khatami commissioned a panel to investigate; his brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami--Participation Front leader and deputy speaker of the Parliament--condemned the arrests as "obviously politically motivated."
The timing of the trials would seem to bear out that accusation. Iran was wracked by student protests in November and December over the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari, a professor who delivered a scathing indictment of Iran's hard-line clerical rulers. Adding to the tension, President Khatami made a desperate effort to salvage his reformist agenda by presenting two controversial bills to Parliament last …