TEHRAN: As the race for Iran's presidential election heats up, hard-liners are cracking down on activists who have supported reformist candidates in the past. It is not clear who will run against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June election, but Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, has hinted that he may enter the race. Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament and a reformer, has said he will run.Although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, has repeatedly backed Ahmadinejad in public speeches, hard-line support for Ahmadinejad may be weaker than it appears and fear of Khatami's candidacy is high.
Last week, the authorities shut down the daily Kargozaran, one of the few major reformist newspapers, accusing it of reporting misinformation about Palestinian fighters in Gaza. Iranian Web sites say pressure on students to end their political activities has also increased. That comes after several thousand students gathered in December to hear Khatami speak at Tehran University, a center of vocal protest against Ahmadinejad. The conservative daily Kayhan, which is close to Ahmadinejad, supported the closure of Kargozaran and called for more pressure on students. And in another clear signal to activists, some 150 radical students demonstrated outside the house of Shirin Ebadi, the human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, on Thursday, accusing her of supporting the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Ebadi had issued a statement condemning the killing of civilians two days earlier. The demonstrators scrawled graffiti on the walls suggesting she was an American spy, and ripped down the sign for her law office, which is in the same building. Last month, government officials shut down the group she founded, the Center for Defenders of Human Rights, and last week they raided her office, taking her computers and files. Ebadi has received death threats in the past but this was the first time that authorities have singled her out for attack. Ebadi, who has supported Khatami in the past, has repeatedly called for free elections and criticized human rights violations. "The crackdowns are all part of the efforts to prevent Khatami from winning the elections," said Farzaneh Roostai, the foreign editor of the daily newspaper Etemad. "All the groups which support Khatami in one way or another are faced with increasing pressure now in order to force them to back down," she added. "They are increasing the price for their political activities." Hard-liners have increased pressure on political activists before previous elections. And the Guardian Council, a body of clerics and jurists that vets candidates for office, has prevented many reformers from running. But Khatami is a high-profile and charismatic leader, and it would be difficult for the Guardian Council to block his candidacy. In addition, Ahmadinejad's stewardship of the ailing economy and his defiant posture on the world stage have upset many conservatives. According to a senior reformist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, many veteran politicians who have been marginalized by Ahmadinejad are backing Khatami. The official said that group included Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and an influential cleric.
Meanwhile, the issue of whether Khatami should run has set off a debate in political circles. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president to Khatami, said on his Web site last week that a senior conservative politician asked him in a meeting to urge Khatami not to run. "If he becomes a candidate, we will be forced to support Ahmadinejad," Abtahi said the official told him."With the situation that Ahmadinejad has created, it is not good for the country to let him become president for another four years," Abtahi said the official told him, referring to Ahmadinejad's political and economic policies. Abtahi said another conservative had said in a meeting the previous week that "if Khatami becomes a candidate, we have to vote for Ahmadinejad with tearful eyes." Khatami's supporters believe he is the only Iranian leader who can easily win and then begin to change the country's image. Iran has been the target of three sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program, and its economy is suffering from an inflation rate of 30 percent. "Without doubt, he would be entering a minefield if he gets elected," said Roostai, the foreign editor of Etemad. "But he is the only dynamic leader who can deal with our crippling internal and external problems." Yet Saeed Leylaz, a reformist political and economics analyst, said that many reformers were urging Khatami not to run. "First of all, there are many who think even if Khatami gets elected, he will face the same obstacles that he did when he was president before," he said, referring to the opposition of powerful conservative institutions when Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005. "Secondly, there are serious concerns that they won't let Khatami win under any circumstances, even if it means rigging the elections."
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