Reformer Nouri faces a trial that could change Iran

Democracy in the balance as conservatives try to silence moderate president's most outspoken ally
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The leading Iranian reformer Abdollah Nouri threw down the gauntlet to his conservative accusers yesterday on the eve of his watershed trial, which could determine the future course of Iran.

The leading Iranian reformer Abdollah Nouri threw down the gauntlet to his conservative accusers yesterday on the eve of his watershed trial, which could determine the future course of Iran.

"You cannot force people to accept a religion, if you force them it is not a religion at all." These were hardly the sort of words I had expected to hear in the capital of a theocratic state. But Iran is changing.

We were in a packed Tehran University lecture hall. When I was a student I never saw a lecture hall half as full. Nor did the lecturer receive the rapturous applause yesterday's speaker was given - but then we didn't get to watch the struggle for the destiny of our country played out before our eyes.

The speaker was Mr Nouri, champion of the reform movement that swept Iran with the election of President Mohammad Khatami two years ago and one of the President's right-hand men.

In his mullah's robes and turban, the short, bearded Mr Nouri with his high-pitched voice looked an unlikely hero for the students. Yesterday he was addressing his most ardent supporters as he tries to save his newspaper Khordad from closure. He was originally scheduled to stand trial today before a court controlled by his most bitter enemies. But authorities yesterday reportedly postponed the trial until Saturday.

The 44-page indictment against Mr Nouri includes a multitude of charges, among them insulting the prophet Mohammed and defaming the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr Nouri could face years in jail.

This is not the downfall of the reform movement nor even that of Mr Nouri. Instead, it is the reckless gambit of Iran's increasingly desperate conservatives. Mr. Nouri warned the conservative mullahs yesterday that the only way to silence him would be to throw him in jail. "The only thing they can do to stop me from speaking, from publishing my newspaper and from spreading my views is to send me to prison. I have no fear," he said.

One student told me: "Condemning this man is the same as condemning the general opinion of the whole country." You could easily believe that in the charged atmosphere of the lecture hall. Mr Nouri enjoys huge support - which is one of the reasons the Conservatives are attacking him.

A conviction would disbar him from Parliamentary elections due in February, the first since Mr Khatami swept to power. Mr Nouri's supporters were predicting a huge vote that would propel him into the Speaker's seat in Parliament.

"Those who criticise our friend are not dissident," Mr Nouri said yesterday to cheers from the students. "One of the tests of democracy is looking to see if there is serious criticism of the Government."

But Iran's conservatives do not like Mr Nouri's criticisms of the Islamic Republic and they want to silence his outspoken Khordad .

The struggle for control of Iran resembles a game of chess more than a revolution. Mr Khatami and his opponents are lost in a power struggle of delicate moves and counter- stratagems. Mr Khatami has popular support, the free press he created, and students who back him - sometimes literally with their lives.

But even if most of the country is against them, the conservatives still control vital areas of power. They control broadcasting and this is the only country I have ever been in where everybody hates television. More importantly, they control the courts. They are afraid to take on the powerful President directly so they use the courts to attack his supporters.

They have closed newspapers and jailed popular reformers on charges of insulting Islam or endangering the state. In July, the struggle turned tragic as conservatives used student protests against the closure of a newspaper as an excuse to send Islamic vigilantes to spread violence and death in the universities - all to discredit Mr Khatami.

But it is the first time the conservatives have directly attacked anyone as popular as Mr Nouri. When they used to imprison Tehran's former popular mayor, Gholam-Hossain Karbaschi, he upset their plans by using the trial as a podium to attack the conservatives. The indications are that Mr Nouri intends to do the same.

More ominously, there are rumours going round Tehran University that the students may take to the streets and protest again. If they do it is to be hoped the vigilantes will not return as well. More violence could play into conservative hands. All the same, the attack on Mr Nouri has the hallmark of desperation.

Walking around Tehran it is clear that the conservatives have lost the hearts of ordinary Iranians - and that they are losing control of them as well. I strolled through a fun fair to the sound of thundering Western disco music banned here since the revolution. The drab coats women must wear in public are getting shorter. Their headscarves more colourful. Some are twining bright scarves into their tentlike black chadors.

More remarkable is the degree of free speech on the streets. People are openly criticising the system. "We don't want Islam," one student told me. Another man said: "Iran is the best country in the Middle East but these rubbish leaders ruined it."

The women who voted for Mr Khatami in their millions are still his most ardent supporters. "May I be sacrificed by Khatami," one middle-aged woman said to me. It is the sort of support the conservatives will have to erode if they are to retain their grip on Iran, and jailing the odd reformer - even one as important as Mr Nouri - just won't be enough.