The Struggle for Mastery in Iran

TEHERAN: The trial of thirteen Iranian Jews on espionage charges is but the latest sign of a conservative backlash against Iran's reform movement, headed by President Mohammed Khatami. Conservatives want not only to silence the reformers, but to provoke confrontation.

Closure of pro-reform newspapers, and the arrests of reform-minded journalists seem deliberate attempts to goad the reformers, who won a majority of seats in last February's first round of parliamentary elections. For if the reformers are incited into demonstrating and street chaos ensues, the security forces will have a handy excuse for a crackdown. In the state of emergency likely to follow, installation of a new parliament might be delayed.

Recognizing this, reform leaders urge restraint on their supporters. They are confident about eventual triumph, because the majority of youth and women support reform. Two thirds of Iran's 65 million people are under 25 years old. But young people in Iran, as everywhere, are not known for patience. Here lies the threat of unrest.

Tension is rife because, although the economy is a shambles, no one is doing anything about it. Those campaigning for reform are mostly interested in the social and political changes called for by President Khatami under the rubric of 'civil society' and the 'rule of law.' The President himself seems not very interested in economics.