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2 banned papers publish again in Iran

TEHRAN, Iran --Two pro-reform newspapers that had been banned -- one of them for the past seven years -- resumed publishing this week in an apparent sign of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's decreasing popularity.

One of the papers, Hammihan, was shut down in 2000 by the hard-line judiciary after it called for improved ties with the United States, touted by the government as Iran's biggest enemy. It was back on newsstands Sunday. The other paper, Shargh, was banned last year after it poked fun at Ahmadinejad in a cartoon. It resumed publishing Monday.

The decision to allow the papers to reopen appeared to reflect a feeling among Iran's top leadership -- made up of Shiite clerics -- that the country must allow a margin of expression for the opposition amid mounting discontent with Ahmadinejad at home. The papers were allowed to resume publishing by a new order from the judiciary, which is controlled by the clerical leadership.

That leadership backed Ahmadinejad in his 2005 election victory. But many former supporters now complain the president has ignored mounting economic woes and needlessly provoked the West against Iran in disputes over its nuclear program.

"Given the ... threats against Iran, the ruling establishment has decided that opposing voices need to be heard, although Ahmadinejad's government may not like it," Mahdi Rahmanian, editor of Shargh, told The Associated Press.

The move restores some degree of opposition voice at a time when Ahmadinejad's government has stepped up a crackdown on some critics, particularly pro-democracy advocates feared to be involved with U.S. moves to foment regime change.

Last week, authorities arrested a prominent Iranian-American academic, Haleh Esfandiari, and a hard-line newspaper accused her of spying for the United States and Israel and trying to start a revolution inside Iran. Her family has denied the accusations.

The Iranian leadership faces multiple pressures -- trying to avert further U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program even as the U.S. takes a more aggressive stance against what it calls Iranian meddling in Iraq. Washington accuses Tehran of backing militants there, a charge Iran denies.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad's political rivals have gained ground. Local elections in December brought an embarrassing defeat for his hard-line supporters as reformists and conservatives opposed to the president won dominance in many city councils across the country.

Last week, the Tehran city council re-elected an Ahmadinejad rival, moderate conservative Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, as mayor of the capital, strengthening his position to run against Ahmadinejhad for the presidency in an election expected in 2009.

Conservatives and reformists have complained about Iran's worsening economy. Over the past six months, housing prices have doubled and the prices of some basic goods including vegetables has tripled. The government is planning to increase the price of gas and also impose rationing, a decision that has caused great concern for the public.

The clerical leadership may be hoping the return of some reformist newspapers will provide a safety valve for the discontent.

The judiciary closed down more than 100 reformist papers during the last years of the rule of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami -- part of the struggle for power between reformists and hard-liners.

"We remain committed to our reformist goals. There is only one hope that directs us in continuing this path: Trying to offer a clearer support for freedoms," said one of Hammihan's editors, Mohammad Ghouchani.

Hammihan's top story Sunday -- headlined "Iran-U.S. talks in Baghdad" -- was about an agreement between Iran and the U.S. to hold ambassador-level talks about war-torn neighboring Iraq.

Many of the writers in the two newspapers are well-known reformists who have spent years in jail for opposing strict interpretations of Islamic rule by hard-line clerics and supporting democratic reforms and freedoms.

Hammihan's chief manager is Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a former Tehran mayor and Khatami ally who was jailed in 1999 on graft charges that were seen to be politically motivated.

In a message published in the newspaper, Khatami congratulated Hammihan on its rebirth, calling it a "dignified" publication. "Thank God that as far as possible we promoted free flow of information and respected journalists ... although the press paid a high price for it," he said.