Iranian liberals on trial

BEHIND the uncommunicative doors of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, Iran is holding its biggest political trial since the early days of its 1979 Islamic revolution. On trial are some 30 people associated with the Freedom Movement, a liberal opposition party that was founded in the early 1960s as the ideological heir of Muhammad Mossadeq's National Front. So far as is known-and the court reveals little-they are charged not only with “diverting the Islamic revolution” in concert with “foreign and domestic enemies”, but also with treachery, going back to the revolution, when the movement's supporters, misleadingly known as “religious nationalists”, lost out to religious conservatives.

Their trial, which is likely to last for some weeks, is partly a reminder to Iran's president, Muhammad Khatami, that his cautious reach towards political pluralism is anathema to the country's judges. But few of the defendants are directly associated with the president's reform movement. Most of them are less prominent than the 17 mainstream reformists hauled before the courts last year, eight of whom were sent to prison. Several of the current defendants, including two former ministers and a former mayor of Tehran, are well past retirement age.

Until their arrest in the spring, many were regarded as revolutionary relics. But the staging of the trial is, by itself, an admission that the Freedom Movement, after years of quiescence and spasmodic repression, is making a come-back.

In the 1980s, the movement's members made common cause with Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, considered at the time to be the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's heir, when he criticised the conduct of the war against Iraq. They carried on supporting Mr Montazeri, Iran's most respected theologian, even when he was passed over for the job of supreme leader. They echoed him when he criticised the system that has allowed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current incumbent, to be both powerful and unaccountable.

Some 18 months ago, Ali Reza Rajai, a religious nationalist, was unexpectedly returned in parliamentary elections (though squeezed out by a suspicious-looking recount). Mr Rajai's popularity with the electorate raised conservative fears that the movement, with its liberal and western notions, might prove as dangerous as Mr Khatami's reformists.

In fact, the Freedom Movement's most fruitful alliance has been with the reformists themselves. In the early days of Mr Khatami's first term, his reform-minded regime derived much of its zip from religious nationalists, who were influential in the press and universities. It was thought that they might attract Iranians frustrated by the pace of reform, thus saving the impatient from the embrace of counter-revolutionary groups abroad. Since the religious nationalists were outsiders, and not in the government, they could articulate radical ideas more easily than the reformists.

Now, however, the conservatives see America's hand behind the Freedom Movement, and have set out to disable it. Mr Montazeri has long been under house arrest, and members of his family have been jailed. Some religious nationalists are already in prison. In the short term, such measures seem to have succeeded: the student movement has quietened down, and there is listlessness in the air. But most of the pre-revolutionary 1970s were conspicuous for their listlessness, too.