The outcome of the political struggle within Iran's clerical elite remains uncertain. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrive at some conclusions about the conditions which have resulted in the closure of newspapers, the detention and prosecution of journalists and editors, and the attacks on writers and newspaper offices by hezbollahi groups.
The issue of freedom of the press is bound up with the increasingly public contest between reformers associated with President Khatami and conservatives within the clerical leadership. As the U.N. special representative on Iran, Maurice Copithorne observed, "in practical terms, the contest is impeding improvements" in the human rights situation.42 Control over the press will become increasingly important as the February 2000 date for parliamentary elections approaches.
As long as the right to freedom of expression remains unprotected in Iranian law the press will be vulnerable to changing winds of political fortune. Progress in the first months of President Khatami's rule was the result of the personal influence of the president himself and his key ministers. As subsequent events have shown, this is not a stable basis on which to build respect for this fundamental human right.
Respect for the rule of law is essential for the protection of the freedom of the press in Iran. If officials resort to arbitrary administrative acts to close newspapers, or extend controls on the press through the Islamic Revolutionary Courts or Special Courts for the Clergy, then the safeguards contained within the law regulating the press are worthless. Moreover, the sinister presence of violent organized groups with links to leading establishment figures, and the personal control of special security forces by rival officials, have a chilling effect on the exercise of this and other basic freedoms. The close alliance between these groups and conservative elements within the government was made clear again in the recent clashes between student supporters of reform and the authorities. Public figures'private enforcers played a prominent role in the violent clashes with students at Tehran University in the early hours of July 9, 1999, which escalated into widespread violent street clashes several days later.
The freedom of the press fostered by President Khatami and his supporters is a limited one that exists only within the limits drawn by the clerical leadership. Those opposed to clerical rule still have no place in public debate in Iran. Within the permitted arena of discourse there are issues, such as the question of the role of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and the system of velayat-e faqih, around which a red line has been drawn.
The unpredictable and arbitrary force with which officials have responded to some independent journalists and publications contributes to a climate of fear among journalists. As Human Rights Watch noted in a 1993 report, "the hands of the government need descend on relatively few to silence many others."43 The Iranian independent press appears far from being silenced at this time, but the cost it may have to pay for its insistence in exercising its basic right to freedom of expression could be great if the conflict between different visions of the political future of the Islamic Republic continues to be carried on at the expense of fundamental freedoms.