Iran president condemns hard-line media crackdown

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who are members of the Assembly of Experts, confer in a biannual meeting of the assembly in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. The Assembly of Experts is an elected body of 86 clerics given role by the constitution for choosing or dismissing the supreme leader. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's moderate-leaning president strongly criticized hard-line judicial officials Saturday for ordering reformist newspapers shut down, highlighting the internal political tensions in the Islamic Republic as it negotiates a final nuclear deal with world powers.

Judicial authorities ordered two pro-reform newspapers — Aseman and Bahar — closed in recent months on vague allegations of questioning Islamic principles. In speech broadcast live on state television, President Hassan Rouhani described the judicial decision as wrong and said media outlets criticizing his decisions seem to be unaffected.

"Stopping the operation and closing (newspapers) is the last solution — not the first one," Rouhani told a meeting of newspaper managers. "Why should the first step be closure and banning (of media)? Sometimes banning may be necessary but why do it so hastily?"

He added: "Why today is some media absolutely free and some others have a little share of this freedom? Government critics and opponents are free and will be free but let government's supporters also enjoy the same freedom and security as well."

The direct criticism by Rouhani of Iran's hard-line judiciary, backed by the country's clericial leadership, is rare. Rouhani is supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say over all major governmental decisions.

Rouhani, a cleric who has taken more moderate stances than his predecessor, was elected last June and has overseen a thaw in relations between Iran and the U.S. that has seen him send letters and speak by telephone to U.S. President Barack Obama. In November, Iran struck an initial deal with world powers to curb its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions to be eased. Negotiations for a final deal are ongoing.

Hard-liners in the country have been aggressively criticizing Rouhani's moves, calling the nuclear deal "a poisoned chalice." One newspaper — Vatan-e-Emrooz, which is backed by Rouhani's opponents printed in black the day the nuclear deal went into effect instead of color as a sign of sorrow and mourning. It declared the deal a "nuclear holocaust" and called it a gift to Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Iran's hard-line judiciary has shut down more than 150 pro-reform newspapers and jailed dozens of editors and writers, often on vague charges of insulting authorities, since 2000.

In his speech Saturday, Rouhani said Iran continues to suffer from extremism. He said he has a mandate from Iranians who voted him president to follow a policy of moderation and constructive interaction with the outside world.