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Iran's neo-conservatives

Islam
Iran

It may not have made the Hollywood in-house journal Variety, but a prestigious award was handed out in Tehran in March 2004. Saeed Mortazavi, the city’s hardline Prosecutor-General, was given the ‘distinguished manager of the year’ award. Judiciary supremo Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi presented Mortazavi with a plaque and several gold coins for services rendered – for cracking the heads of those who have dared to defy the Islamic Republic’s unelected Council of Guardians.

The award was long overdue and well deserved. Mortazavi came to prominence as head of the Press Court where he was instrumental in closing over 100 pro-democracy publications and jailing dozens of journalists and editors. But Mortazavi is a modern kind of guy who has now turned his attention to pulling Iranian websites (one of the last sources of uncensored news) off the internet.

Mortazavi rose to international prominence in the late spring of 2003 when he was implicated in the beating to death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazami. The Montreal-based Kazemi was picked up for taking photos outside Tehran’s notorious Evan Prison on 23 June. By 27 June she was pronounced brain-dead after being admitted to Baghiatollah Hospital. She had been subjected to 51 hours of interrogation, including 25 hours by Mortazavi’s Prosecution Office. Between 10.25 on the evening of her arrest and 2.30 the following morning she was questioned by the Assistant Tehran Public Prosecutor, ‘during part of which time the Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi was present’, according to the official Iranian report on the affair. The Paris daily Libération reported that Mortazavi joined in the fun by personally beating Kazami with his shoe.

After her death Mortazavi went to the Foreign Press Department of the Culture Ministry and told it to announce that Ms Kazemi had died of a stroke. When that story didn’t wash, charges were brought against two low-level bureaucrats from the Intelligence Ministry. When these charges were thrown out, Mortazavi intervened again to make sure that the trial received scant media coverage in Iran.

In many ways Mortazavi represents a new breed of younger neo-conservatives (‘neocons’) who have come to the fore to prop up Iran’s ageing Mullahs, still led by the stern-faced Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei, from a poor family in Mashhad, is in his second term as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. He was appointed by the Council of Experts, undoubtedly aided by the reputation he gained from a 1982 assassination attempt in which he lost his hand.

However, the generation that led the 1979 Islamic Revolution is a spent force, tainted by corruption and discredited by its ideological straitjacket. The new generation of neocons blends the strict religious intolerance and despotism of the older generation with a more pragmatic interest in efficiency and, in some cases at least, an openness to liberal pro-market economic views. For the moment they are less marked by corruption. They are largely uninterested in the Revolution’s somewhat hollow calls for social justice. They have risen to prominence due to the failures of democratic reform and the disqualification of large numbers of popular reformers, whom the Guardians successfully prevented from running in the most recent national elections. Some 80 out of the present crop of 270 MPs are considered to be in this camp.

The neocons may represent a new wave but it would be a mistake to see them as in any way liberal or interested in human rights. Some of the more prominent ones have close connections to the Revolutionary Guards – the enforcers of the Islamic Revolution and the shock troops in the attacks on student and pro-democracy demonstrations over the past few years.

Newly elected Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad is a rising neocon star, as is former revolutionary guard commander Ezatollah Zarghami, recently named as head of the Iranian State TV and Radio Network. Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahrudi (who gave Mortazavi his plaque) recently appointed another Guard commander as his legislative liaison.

Like their Western equivalents, these neocons don’t brook dissent and are firmly on the side of the powerful. They trade on the depoliticization of society, marshalling fear and insecurity to eliminate debate and democratic contestation. They might even have a thing or two to teach the likes of US Attorney General John Ashcroft. After all, God is also on their side.

Meanwhile Iranians are, by most accounts, sinking into boredom and depression. The conservatives have purged the cultural scene of many of its most interesting voices. The excitement and promise of the radical democratic movement of the late 1990s, spearheaded by the Participation Front, is spent. The percentage of people casting their ballots in elections has tumbled. Rates of suicide, addiction and depression (especially among women and young people) are on the rise.

For the neocons a ‘Chinese’ solution – political autocracy, technocratic efficiency and economic growth – may be the goal. But it seems unlikely that Mortazavi and company will be able to smother Iranian political life forever.