TEHRAN, Iran – Iran closed down two opposition newspapers on Monday, one of which had recently poked fun at hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the way his government has handled nuclear talks with the West.
It was a fresh show of determination by Iran's ruling clerical establishment to silence dissent over its handling of nuclear talks with the West and deny reformers a chance to air their views ahead of elections scheduled for Dec. 15.
The rights group Reporters Without Borders voiced concern last week about harassment of Iranian journalists, including prison sentences and interrogations. Ahmadinejad has purged dozens of journalists, university professors and government officials seen as supporting warmer ties with the West.
Iran's most prominent reformist daily, Shargh, or East, ran a cartoon Thursday depicting a horse and donkey facing each other on a chess board. The donkey — a symbol of ignorance in Iranian culture — has his mouth open and light around him, while the horse shows no emotion.
Iranian judiciary officials apparently took the donkey to represent Iran in nuclear negotiations with the West, journalists said.
Ahmadinejad reportedly said he felt there was a light around him, and that world leaders focused unblinkingly on him when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly last year. Ahmadinejad is reportedly planning to address the assembly again later this month.
"We got a call from the Press Supervisory Board saying that we have no right to publish our newspaper as of today," Shargh editor Mohammad Ghouchani told The Associated Press.
Iran's official news agency reported the paper was ordered closed down for "dozens of violations," including the cartoon's publication and "publication of material against the rulings by the Supreme National Security Council." The council handles Iran's nuclear negotiations with the West.
"In recent months, nuclear officials have been warning the press to be careful over what they publish over Iran's nuclear policy and not write anything that contradicts what they do," reformist lawmaker Esmaeil Gerami Moghadam told the AP.
State-run television said Shargh was shut because it failed to appoint a new managing director to "more aggressively supervise material published in the paper."
The current managing director, Mahdi Rahmanian, denounced such a demand.
"Pressure on the press to change their managing director is illegal. The law doesn't allow the board to make such a demand," he said.
The Press Supervisory Board also ordered the political monthly Nameh, or Letter, to be closed down, IRNA reported Monday.
The paper's editor, Majid Tavallaei, said the reason behind the closure was the publication of a poem from dissident female poet Simin Behbahani. The text of the poem was not immediately available.
"Publication of the poem is seen as the main reason for the closure. They have taken that as an insult," Tavallaei said.
Echoing the rhetoric of the nation's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad appears determined to remake Iran by reviving the fundamentalist goals pursued under the republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Upon taking office last year, Ahmadinejad replaced nearly all his country's governors and lower provincial officials, as well as 40 ambassadors. Many of Iran's top government officials are now either former commanders of the elite Revolutionary Guards or former hard-line security officials.
Last week, he urged students to push for a purge of liberal, secular university teachers, and dozens of such instructors have been sent into early retirement during Ahmadinejad's rule.
Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both appear on a list of "press freedom predators" compiled by Reporters Without Borders each year.
Iran saw a wave of newspaper closures in past years amid a confrontation between reformers and hard-liners during the 1997-2005 tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
The hard-line judiciary shut down more than 100 pro-reform newspapers and jailed dozens of editors and writers on vague charges of insulting authorities.
But Moghadam said the new wave of press crackdown meant no tolerance for criticism ahead of upcoming elections.
"It is a clear message that they don't tolerate any voice of opposition. They also don't want reformers to convey their message through Shargh to the people ahead of the elections," he said.
Iran is preparing to hold elections for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical panel that has the authority to choose or dismiss Iran's top leader, and city council elections. Both are slated for Dec. 15.