| An Iranian woman holds an anti-US placard in front of the American embassy in Tehran on Monday. (Reuters)
Tehran, Nov. 4 (Reuters): Exactly 23 years after the US embassy takeover in Tehran, a hardline Iranian court today jailed one of the former hostage-takers who is now a leading voice for reform in the Islamic Republic.
Abbas Abdi’s arrest, apparently related to the activities of a polling institute he founded, highlighted worsening political tensions between President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government and the hardline religious establishment, prompting Ayatollah Khamenei to call for calm.
“The constitution has stipulated the political structure of the country. Everyone’s responsibility is clear.... Don’t fight each other. Keep the unity,” Khamenei, who weilds ultimate power in Iran, said in a speech to students.
Abdi has recently led a chorus calling on Khatami to resign if, as expected, conservative opponents block two reform Bills put forward by the moderate president to improve his ability to govern the country.
The arrest, reported by the official news agency IRNA, came as thousands burned US and British flags and chanted “Death to America” in front of the former US diplomatic compound to mark the day when Abdi and hundreds of other radical students overpowered embassy guards.
“Today ‘Death to America’ is not just coming from the mouths of Iranian people, it has become an international slogan,” bellowed a speaker.
Abdi, like many of the former hostage-takers, is now an outspoken proponent of the need to reform Iran’s Islamic political system where mostly unelected conservative bodies control the judiciary, armed forces and broadcast media.
His arrest today seemed to be related to the closure last week of the Ayandeh polling company he founded. Conservative newspapers said Ayandeh had been accused of taking money from a US-based polling organisation to carry out opinion polls in Iran.
Despite strong government protests, another polling centre was closed down and its director imprisoned last month after it released a poll showing three-quarters of Iranians favour resuming talks with Washington — something which Iran’s conservatives reject outright.
Political analysts and reformist politicians said Abdi’s arrest was an attempt to intimidate the reformist-dominated parliament as it debates Khatami’s two reform Bills.
The Bills drive at the heart of the conservatives’ power base. One targets the judiciary, giving Khatami the right to suspend judges who overstep the constitution while the other would curb the veto power over poll candidates held by a constitutional watchdog known as the guardian council, which reformists fear will be used to bar hundreds of them from standing in forthcoming elections.
Khatami had presented the Bills as frustration grew with his inability to deliver on promises to create a freer, more open society. Reform Bills have been blocked, scores of liberal newspapers banned and dozens of outspoken journalists jailed as conservatives seek to halt or slow down the reform process.
But while the mostly student crowd of 3,000 to 5,000 at the US embassy demonstration today revelled in the anti-American slogans, the vast majority of Iranians appeared disinterested in the radical rhetoric.
“Those people are forced to the demonstrations. I would never go,” said Mohsen, who works at a sandwich parlour in central Tehran. “My wife and I would love to go to America because they have a high culture and a lot of facilities.”