Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Election by Trial: Iran's Campaign 2000 in Full Swing

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Election by Trial: Iran's Campaign 2000 in Full Swing

Article excerpt

Election by Trial: Iran's Campaign 2000 in Full Swing

Those who find the United States election campaign less than compelling should consider switching their attention to the Iranian parliamentary elections, which have their first round on Feb. 18. President Khatami, confident that the people support him, tries to call out the vote.(1) Conservatives, in power but worded about keeping it, call for "unity" (under them) and "convergence" (with their ideas).(2) But, at this stage, the campaigning is being conducted less "on the stump" than in the courtroom.

Nouri Puts the System on Trial

To continue the campaign analogy, the trial of Hojjatoleslam Abdollah Nouri was "super Tuesday." Nouri has been interior minister, vice president, and also the leading vote-getter in Tehran's recent municipal elections. He is widely considered to be the leading candidate for speaker of the Majlis if the reformers obtain a majority. As such, he is a special target of the anti-reform faction. Drawing on articles in Khordad, the newspaper Nouri manages, conservatives charged him with "insults" to Ayatollah Khomeini and Islam, advocating normalization of relations with the U.S. and Israel among other offenses.

Nouri was not tried by the ordinary courts, but by the Special Court for Clergy, which is controlled by the hard-liners. This trial was not held in secret but was open to the media, resulting in something akin in impact to the Army-McCarthy hearings, as Nouri turned the tables on his right-wing accusers.

Nouri attacked the court's legitimacy, arguing that it had no basis in law.(3) That attack was only one part of a comprehensive analysis of where authority should rest in Islamic Iran.(4) In a speech before his trial, Nouri anticipated his defense. "One viewpoint propounds that only those who hold legitimate positions in the ruling establishment have the right to talk on the domestic scene. [Another view] believes that Iran belongs to all Iranians and that the role of law is the only parameter that determines the extent of citizen's rights."(5) In the trial Nouri argued that "even the leader cannot act above the law,"(6) that "he has no powers above those created for him by the constitution."(7) On issues such as beards, the chador and divorce Nouri showed that the regime is enforcing "invisible laws" -- personal interpretations of the leadership -- not laws established by a transparent process.(8)

Observers reached for analogies to capture the import of Nouri's position. Nouri invoked the Inquisition. One analyst called Nouri a Socrates,(9) another "Khrushchev" for Nouri's public naming of the Stalinist nature of the existing regime.(10)

It is tempting to think of Nouri as a modernist, advocating a separation of church and state. However, a more precise analogy that highlights the religious nature of his argument would be to compare Nouri's situation to that of Martin Luther in the Protestant reformation.

Nouri, like Luther, is not advocating that a secular state relegate religion to the private sphere. Rather, the issue is whether religious interpretation is the preserve of an infallible hierarchy or is conducted in a public debate based on logic that is open to all believers. "You cannot claim religion is limited to your own particular understanding of it," Nouri declared.(11)

In Luther's day, a key struggle was over the rules for interpretation of scripture. In the case of contemporary Iran, a rough analogy would be the status given the words of the revered Ayatollah Khomeini. Does his every word have the status of scripture to be interpreted in a fundamentalistic way, or is the application of his words conditioned by time and circumstances?

Nouri was convicted on 15 of 20 charges, and sentenced to five years in jail. While it is widely assumed this means he will be barred by the Council of Guardians from standing for parliament, this conclusion is somewhat premature. Interior Minister Lad pointed out that a press-related conviction doesn't bar someone from the election. …

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