TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's ruling Muslim clerics began the apostasy trial yesterday of one of the country's most popular politicians, Abdullah Nouri, a cleric who has gone from being one of the most trusted aides to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to taking a key leadership role in a campaign to end the clerical dictatorship Khomeini imposed after the Islamic revolution in 1979.
As turbaned clerics gathered in a courtroom ringed by armed commandos, few Iranians doubted that the outcome of the trial, before the much-feared Special Court for the Clergy, will go a long way toward determining whether the country moves toward greater democracy or into a new era of clerical repression. A guilty verdict could conceivably carry the death penalty, although a lengthy prison term is more likely.
For many of Iran's 65 million people, the trial has assumed great significance -- a moment when a courtroom becomes a testing ground for irreconcilable views about the future of a society and its beliefs, with huge social, philosophical and political stakes resting on the outcome.
In the Tehran trial, which could last weeks, reformers and hard-liners will battle over issues that only a few years ago were taboo, the most crucial of them over whether the right to rule rests with the Iranian people or with the clergy.
But other, more tangible questions are on trial, too, including Iran's relations with the United States. High on the list of charges outlined in a 44-page indictment of the defendant is that the newspaper he publishes has advocated re-establishing relations with the United States. The prosecutor, a cleric, said that by running an article quoting another high-ranking cleric as saying that relations with the United States are "now a possible, not impossible thing," Nouri had betrayed the revolution and the Islamic principles that underpinned it.
Although it is Nouri who is on trial, the 50-year-old cleric is widely regarded in Iran as a surrogate for the man many powerful clerics would like to see as the defendant, President Mohammad Khatami. But for the time being, Khatami, 53, another cleric, is untouchable, having won a landslide victory in the presidential election in 1997 over the hard-liners' candidate.
Hours before Nouri's trial began, Khatami returned to Tehran from an official visit to Paris, part of his campaign to break Iran's isolation and open what he calls "a dialogue of civilizations" with the world.
Though most Iranians expect Nouri to be convicted, many say the trial could be costly for the hard-liners, underlining an intolerance that could strengthen reformers' support.
Nouri appeared to stun his peers appointed to sit in judgment over him -- a judge and a nine-man jury, all of them clerics -- by taking the witness stand immediately after the indictment was read to say that it was they, not he, who had betrayed the revolution. He rejected their right to judge him, saying that the clergy court itself was illegal, having no place in the Islamic Constitution that was drawn up in 1980.
"I totally reject the court, its membership, and its competence to conduct this trial, and any verdict you reach will have no legitimacy," he said in a clear, steady voice.
By challenging the court's legitimacy, Nouri came close to doing something virtually unheard of in Iran, even among reformers -- questioning the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, the stern-faced cleric who became an absolute ruler in the years after the upheaval that ousted the shah.
Khomeini, who died in 1989, established the clergy court by personal decree to deal with resistance to Islamic rule, but Nouri, referring to the 1980 constitution, said that not even "the leader" -- a reference to Khomeini -- had the right to establish courts outside the framework of the constitution. "Are we supposed to accept that the law applies to everybody except the leader?" he said.