Iran Shuts Top Reformist Paper, Citing Cartoon Seen as an Insult

TEHRAN, Sept. 11 — Iran’s conservative press watchdog shut down four publications on Monday, including a major reformist newspaper.

The reformist daily, called Shargh, or East, was shut down indefinitely because the newspaper had refused to replace its director and because it published a cartoon in a recent edition that was considered insulting to the government, state-run television said, citing a statement from the press monitoring agency.

“Shargh was banned and referred to the court because of its frequent violations and refusing to make amends in the past month, especially an insulting cartoon in a recent edition,” the statement said.

The statement said that the press agency had issued 70 warnings to the popular newspaper, which has a circulation of 100,000, and had ordered it to replace its managing director, which it had not done.

The cartoon published Thursday showed two chess pieces, a white knight facing an angry black donkey, a symbol of ignorance in Iran, on a checkered board. Journalists working at the newspaper said the cartoonist had tried to make the black donkey clearer on the checkered board by making the area around it whiter.

The cartoon was believed to be a reference to Iran’s negotiations over its nuclear program, The Associated Press said, and an insult to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He had been reported to have said that he felt in the spotlight with world leaders focusing unblinkingly on him when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly last year.

The political monthly Nameh, or Letter, was also shut down Monday, the news agency ISNA reported, but no reason was announced. The journal was published by religious nationalistic opposition groups.

The press agency also revoked permits for two other journals, Hafez and Khatereh. Hafez was a literary and historical monthly that had published articles about a former monarch of Iran.

“It seems that the government is limiting the freedom at home as the international pressure is increasing on Iran over its nuclear program,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident cleric and an Islamic philosopher in Tehran. “Now that the threat of sanctions looms, the government does not want to hear any protest at home.”

The government shut down the daily newspaper Iran in May and jailed two of its journalists after it published a cartoon that Iranian ethnic Azeris said had mocked them.

More than a hundred newspapers and journals were shut down in previous years by the conservative judiciary. But the press has come under even stronger pressure since Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election a year ago. Last month, a government spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, was reported to have sent a letter to the public prosecutor calling on him to act against newspapers that publish accusations against the government.

In addition to the crackdown on the press, two political prisoners have died recently.

One prisoner, Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, hanged himself last Wednesday, the government said. He had been sentenced to death on charges that he had ties to an armed opposition group in exile, the Mujahedeen Khalq. Mr. Mahdavi’s death sentence had recently been upheld by a supreme court.

Another political prisoner, Akbar Mohammadi, died in jail on July 30, after a hunger strike protesting prison conditions.

Human Rights Watch warned last week that the health and safety of Iranian political prisoners was in grave danger and called on the government to appoint an independent commission of Iranian lawyers and doctors to investigate the recent deaths.