Khatami’s Head on the Block

Iran’s hardline religious leaders have decided they have had enough of President Mohammad Khatami and his overly popular drive for political reforms. They have put out a contract on him in the form of a fatwa, a religious decree issued by the Council of Religious Sages which is dominated by Iran’s implacable spiritual ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This is reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran. In an atmosphere recalling medieval Inquisition tribunals, the dreaded Special Operations Committee was called into session this week in the holy city of Qom to determine Khatami’s fate. The majority followed the lead of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi in approving Khatami’s liquidation as quickly as possible. Their recommendation went up to the Spiritual Ruler for his final seal.

The only questions now are the timing and manner of his execution.

Khatami death sentence is the direct result of the legislative showdown he finally forced on the radicals in his second term in office on the reform ticket. One of the two bills he initiated, just tabled, would strip the “conservative” clerics of some of their powers. The 12-member Guardians Council would forfeit the right to veto election candidates, which they apply unrestrainedly against reformists. Another piece of legislation, due to come before parliamentary soon, would empower the president to suspend court rulings viewed as unconstitutional.

Of late, the courts have shut down dozens of liberal newspapers and imprisoned the reformist president’s most zealous supporters. Those two bills, which would have sailed through the reformist-dominated parliament, the Majlis, threatened to put an end to the ayatollahs’ grip on the country through their unbridled power to override the country’s elected institutions.

In the event of a veto being applied to block the two bills, reformist office-holders threaten to resign and call a national referendum. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian experts believe any referendum would net 80 percent support, drawing curtains down on the Islamic Revolution founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

The condemned president is aware of his danger. Inroads are being made on his immediate circle. Last week, some of his junior aides were arrested. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have learned that one of Khatami’s closest advisers, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, expects to be taken into custody shortly. Abtahi headed Khatami’s staff for several years, and is now vice president in charge of political affairs.

Last week, Abbas Abdi, a leading reformist figure who advocates the resumption of dialogue with Washington, was detained, raising a political storm. The Ayandeh (The Future) research institute of which he is a director was shut down on charges that include publishing false opinion polls and taking money from a polling organization in the United States. The indictment refers to the poll Avandeh conducted last year on behalf of the Gallup institute to canvass Iranian attitudes toward the United States. A week earlier, the institute’s director, Hossein Ghazian, a university professor, was arrested.

Abdi started out as one of the Khomeinist revolutionary students who stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and kept 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Ironically, his arrest Monday took place on the 22nd anniversary of the US embassy siege, underscoring his ideological conversion. Today, Abdi is in the forefront of the struggle for political reform in his country and the reversal of its anti-American policies. The charges against him have been formulated so as to make him liable to the death penalty if found guilty. They include contacts with a CIA agent through the director of a Dubai-based America-Pan Arab fund and accepting US intelligence funds for subversive operations against the Iranian regime. His accusers claim they have a letter he wrote and signed authorizing the distribution of 45 million Toman ($50,000) to Iranian dissidents.

Iran’s judiciary contends its hands are clean. The judges never ordered Abdi’s arrest and have no notion of his whereabouts. However, it is no secret in Tehran that Said Mortazani, a judge who has jailed many of Iran’s most distinguished liberal writers and statesmen, is the live wire of the campaign of detentions which is seen as leading inexorably to Khatami’s arrest or liquidation.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that several more of Khatami’s closest allies, such as Ahmad Bourghani, deputy speaker of the Majlis, and Alireza Atavi-Tabar, a journalist and leading reformist, expect knocks on their doors.

President Khatami may not be the first to pay dearly for fighting to open up his hidebound country. This week, two prominent Majlis deputies died in mysterious traffic accidents while driving north to investigate a corruption scandal involving the import of rotten meat. One of the victims was Alireza Nouri. His brother, former interior minister and reformist cleric Abdollah Nouri, had been languishing in prison after being sentenced to death by a special religious court for preaching religious moderation. Monday, after the accident, Nouri was released from jail and pardoned by Khamenei.

Murder in broad daylight disguised as a road accident is a favorite form of assassination in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A week ago, the radical religious Kayhan newspaper predicted dramatic events for early January. The reference was almost certainly to the high noon fast approaching between religious hardliners and political reformers.

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