Then and now
By Krishnadev Calamur and Richard Gross Posted Jan 1 2000
On Nov. 4, 1979, a crowd composed largely of disaffected Iranian students, intellectuals and anti-government leftists stormed the American Embassy in Tehran. They held embassy staff members hostage 444 days in protest of the United States’ grant of asylum to the Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He would never return to Iran.
The protester’s action ushered in the rule of Islamic fundamentalist clerics led by Atatollah Ruhollah Khomeni. The takeover has been cited by many political observers as a leading factor in the defeat of incumbent U.S. President Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Carter may have been the most prominent casualty; the first casualty, however, was whatever press freedom remained in pre-revolutionary Iran. The nation’s press became tightly controlled.
Khomeni was said to have envisioned a benevolent Islamic nation in which, as The Washington Post Middle-East correspondent Steven E. Tyler wrote, “The government focused its attention on the ‘downtrodden,’ the ‘disinherited,’ and the ‘poor’ and ‘oppressed.’” According to visitors in recent years, that vision has not been achieved. In an effort to quell growing public discontent, successors to the late Ayatollah seemed to have softened their criticism of Western customs and nations, particularly the United States, “The Great Satan.”
Twenty years after the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, however, Iran’s clerics seem unready to lessen animosities toward the United States. The progressive newspaper Salam was shut down on July 7 for advocating, among other things, better relations with the United States. Its editor, Abbas Abidi, who 20 years ago helped take the embassy and its 52 occupants hostage, was tried for insulting theologians. He was acquitted on Aug. 22.
Earlier in August, the court banned Salam for five years for printing a government document that outlined moves to curb press freedom. The court also found its publisher, Mohammad Mosavi-Khoeniha, guilty of defamation and spreading false information and banned him from practicing journalism for three years.
Salam was the fourth newspaper in Iran to be shut down this year. Others include Neshat, which was closed Sept. 5 after printing articles criticizing the death penalty and publishing a letter from an opposition leader that questioned the authority of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Editor Latif Safari received a 30-month suspended sentence.
The recent clampdown on the Iranian press is seen as part of an ongoing power struggle between Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who wants closer ties with the United States, and more hard-line Islamic clerics headed by Khamenei, who control the judiciary. Salam’s closure led to student protests throughout the country, the likes of which had not been seen since the Islamic revolution. The protests had little effect on the government, however. It approved a new law that curbed press freedom on July 7, the day Salam was shut down.