Old political cartoon resurfaces in battles of Iran's future

TEHRAN, Iran -- Protesters in bloodstained shrouds clogged streets in Iran's holy city. Authorities closed a popular newspaper and arrested several of its employees. A torrent of outrage from Muslim hard-liners is swelling over an unexpected provocation:

A 1937 American political cartoon about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Call it the cartoon crisis. The domino-style fallout over the Depression-era sketch displays the wildly unpredictable nature of Iranian politics at a time when conservatives feel threatened from all sides.

The drawing, published last week in the now-closed Hayat-e-Nou newspaper, relates to FDR's power struggle with the Supreme Court, depicting a giant thumb -- Roosevelt's -- pressing down on the head of a humbled court justice.

Iranian conservatives saw something else.

Insulted memory

They felt the robed, white-bearded judge in the cartoon resembled the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. The decision to publish it was considered a stinging insult to his memory.

"This is just an excuse to make a show of force ... and create tension," said a pro-reform lawmaker, Mohammad Naimipour. "This is not natural."

It's not clear why the paper chose the cartoon, though it was published at a time when reformers are pressing new measures that would, among other things, reduce hard-liners' control over the judiciary. The newspaper was ordered closed indefinitely Saturday. Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi said three employees involved in publishing the cartoon have been arrested.

"We announce our disgust and hatred toward this abominable move ... our nation is united to expel all infiltrators and stooges," said a statement issued following a protest march Sunday in Qom, about 80 miles south of Tehran and the center for Islamic study in Iran.

Marchers protest

Some of the nearly 5,000 marchers wore shrouds soaked in animal blood and carried black flags, traditional signs of mourning among Shiite Muslims. They also denounced political reformers as traitors.

In Tehran, the newspaper's chief editor -- and brother of Khomeini's successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- struggled to hold back tears as he addressed fellow parliamentarians in a session broadcast live on Tehran Radio.

"No one loves Imam Khomeini more than me," said Hadi Khamenei.

But he and his older brother are on opposite sides in the battles over Iran's future.

Hadi Khamenei is a top pro-reform lawmaker seeking to dilute the broad powers of the ruling clerics, led by his brother. The cartoon, plucked from the U.S. Social Security Administration Web site, accompanied an interview with a member of the outlawed Freedom Movement of Iran.

Editors haven't said what they saw in the cartoon. It was a commentary on a failed attempt by Roosevelt in 1937 to allow the White House to add more judges to federal courts if sitting judges were older than 70, a move seen as a bid to give Roosevelt more sway over the Supreme Court.

Iran's Parliament could soon be the forum for the most bold attempt to reshape the way Iran is ruled.

President Mohammad Khatami has promised to press ahead with two bills that would remove the ruling clerics' ability to ban political candidates and weaken their control over the judiciary and security forces. No date for a vote is scheduled.

The press has suffered many causalities in the political crossfire. Conservatives have closed more than 80 publications in recent years as they try to muzzle reformers.

The cartoon apparently gave hard-liners an excuse to move against the popular Hayat-e-Nou, or "New Life," which carried additional clout because of the family connection to Iran's most influential cleric.

"We have decided not to remain silent," said a statement from clerics in Qom. "Our objective is not merely seeking closure of a newspaper or imprisonment of a person, but eliminating bases of the enemy at the country's press."

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