When President Hassan Rouhani took office last fall with a sweeping mandate for change from the Iranian electorate, Iranians concerned with press freedom, an easing of censorship, and the return of a lively media climate initially took heart. Rouhani appointed a liberal-minded, influential politician as minister of culture in his "Government of Hope and Prudence," journalists began speaking of more energetic energetic newsrooms, and top officials took to social media as though it wasn't actually illegal.
For a time, it seemed that in Rouhani Iranians had found both a ruthless diplomat able to end Iran's economic isolation and a sensible policy wonk keen to moderate politics and public life. Last week has cast the most serious doubt on that perspective since Rouhani took office, as it becomes clear that either the president is not the moderate he wishes to appear, or that his aims on the diplomatic and domestic fronts are, for the time being, simply incompatible.
On Thursday Iran's judiciary shutdown a new independent newspaper that has been the buzz of reform-minded circles. Aseman was just six issues into its life as a daily publication after two years as as weekly, under the stewardship of Mohammad Qouchani, one of Iran's pre-eminent journalists and editors and the intellectual force behind a generation of reformist publications. After the shutdown authorities directed the paper's editor, Abbas Bozorgmehr, to Evin Prison.
The fracas is outwardly over an article in which an octogenarian political scientist called the Islamic sharia principle of "eye for an eye" justice inhuman, a matter that is especially sensitive and newsy at the moment. Iran's judiciary has executed at least 40 people since January, some in gruesome public hangings, drawing both international condemnation and the anger of reformists, who see the executions as a hardline assertion of power and public humiliation of the new president.
What is sobering to bear in mind is that the newspaper Aseman was not using its platform to stridently challenge the judiciary killing spree, rather the passage from the article in question simply referred to a statement issued 35 years ago by a small circle of university professors criticizing this principle of Islamic criminal law. There was no strident editorial, no impassioned essay arguing for the abolition of capital punishment, merely a 35-year-old recollection that Bozorgmehr, the editor sent to Evin, says he cut from the final version that went to print.
But as is usually the case with Iranian journalists' clashes with the judiciary, the real problem lurks beneath the depths. Moderates in the Rouhani government, together with the reformists who are patiently waiting for the administration's domestic policies to take shape, know they need to revive and build public support for everything from legalizing access to social media to securing greater space for free expression and cultural activities.
This support will be crucial to Rouhani's ability to push back against hardliners, who, frustrated by their relative inability to sabotage Iran's nuclear diplomacy, want to do their best to keep the president's hands off domestic reforms. For now, the Supreme Leader has made it clear he backs Rouhani's nuclear negotiations, and that cover has largely protected the process in Geneva, and now Vienna, from being shredded by hardline news websites and influential hardliners throughout the establishment. And unlike former president Mohammad Khatami, whose moderation efforts stumbled both on the international stage and domestically, this media shutdown doesn't reflect a lack of support by the Supreme Leader, merely a reminder that the ayatollah's backing is limited to diplomacy at present.
Reformists close to the president and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, say that administration must secure a permanent nuclear deal first, and that this success will create the room they need to deliver on citizens' rights. They insist that Rouhani is a moderate at heart, but that the realpolitik of Iran's Islamic system demands that he move slowly, cultivating influential hardliners by giving them incentives to back his policies, and initially making the nuclear issue and economic reform his top priority, leaving the thornier task of domestic opening for later.
But with Aseman's closure, a more worrisome prospect is emerging: that not only will there be little progress when it comes to free expression and the independent media, but that when it comes to media, it might as well as be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sitting in the presidential palace.
After all, the tremendous growth of hardline news websites under Ahmadinejad now seems to be taking full effect, these sites led the charge against Aseman, and reported news of the editor's detention. A decade ago, during the worst days of former president Khatami's fractured and failed presidency, hardline sites were far more limited in scope and presence. Today, the hardline cyberactivists and news sites that emerged under Ahmadinejad are a cultural force in their own right, strident and ready to keep on biting Rouhani, and ensuring that publications run by his allies cannot vie for the public's attention.
But ultimately this news might be overshadowed inside Iran by positive reports from the nuclear talks in Vienna, and Britain's announcement that it will upgrade ties with Iran. This is all welcome news to Iranians who patiently wait for Rouhani to suspend the country's economic death spiral. But alongside this diplomatic progress, there are also deep and broad expectations that the country's newspapers would become readable again. While the judiciary may permit Aseman to resume publication at some point, its abrupt closure so early in its life as a new publication is foreboding, a signal that Rouhani's Iran, when it comes to the media, is not such a different place.
Azadeh Moaveni is a former Middle East correspondent for Time magazine, and the author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran. She reported from across the region for over a decade, and has covered Iran since 1999.