As Iran engages with the international community in high-level talks about its nuclear program, its government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, has taken great strides to convince Western leaders that it is open to change. But within the country, Rouhani and his government have had to strike a pragmatic balance between allowing some freedoms and the keeping in line with the country’s conservative rulers.
That was made evident this week as Iran's press watchdog imposed a ban on the Iranian reformist newspaper Bahar for publishing an article seen by critics as questioning the beliefs of Shia Islam, Iranian media reported Monday.
The newspaper last Wednesday published an op-ed article expressing doubts the Prophet Muhammad had appointed a successor – a statement that contradicts the beliefs of Shia Muslims, who believe Muhammad designated Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, his son-in-law, to lead followers of Islam after his death.
An estimated 60 to 65 percent of Iranians are Shia Muslims, according to the CIA factbook.
"Based on the verdict issued by the press supervisory board, Bahar newspaper has been banned and its case has been referred to the judiciary," Mehr news agency quoted press watchdog head Alaedin Zohourian as saying.
Bahar issued an apology note, saying that publishing the article last week was an "unintentional mistake.” It said it also temporarily suspended activities on Saturday to "ease the tensions."
"The article which has sadly hurt the feelings of the believers was published due to a technical error," the stateent read. "Editorial has apologized several times and criticized the article to show it was contrary to Bahar (political) line."
Iran's Culture Minister Ali Janati also condemned Bahar for publishing an article that "foments religious conflicts." He said the daily had received earlier warnings.
"Besides deviating the history of Islam, it played a role in creating religious conflict in the country," official news agency IRNA quoted Janati as saying.
A leading reformist, Mohammad Reza Aref, also criticized the article. "Reformist media should act wisely and should not give an excuse to rivals who seek to undermine the reformist camp," he said.
Since 2000, Iran's judiciary has shut down more than 120 pro-reform newspapers and jailed dozens of editors and writers.
But Rouhani, who has the support of reformists and moderates, pledged to work for more social freedom during his election campaign. His administration has released several reformist journalists and political activists from prison since taking office in August.
The Iranian government has also taken other steps to soften its image as it meets with leaders around the world to discuss its nuclear program.
President Rouhani suggested recently that hardliners stop using the phrase "Death to America."
Also, over the weekend, Tehran authorities removed anti-American posters that had been put up around Tehran thoroughfares ahead of the Nov. 4 anniversary of the 1979 seizure of hostages in the U.S. Embassy.
One depicted an Iranian negotiator sitting at a table with a U.S. official who is wearing a suit jacket but also army trousers and boots, with a caption that read: "American Honesty."
Al Jazeera and wire services