In Iran, the name Abbas Abdi is inextricably linked with the word “reform.” Although he’s now a key ally of President Mohammad Khatami and an advocate of opening a dialogue with the United States, Abdi first made his name as a revolutionary student leader in the 1979 US embassy siege. Twenty years later, student protests and massive civil unrest broke out around Abdi again, when hard-liners shuttered the prominent reformist paper he edited. So it is in keeping with Abdi’s symbolic stature that he is under fire in the latest conservative assault on the reformist opposition. On November 4, 2002–the twenty-third anniversary of the embassy takeover, no less–Abdi was taken from his home and charged with espionage.

At the heart of his case is a poll that he and fellow detainees Behrouz Geranpayeh and Hossein Ghazian conducted for the reformist-dominated Parliament late last year. In a country that calls the United States the Great Satan and finds itself on the receiving end of that “axis of evil” barb, the findings were explosive. Nearly 75 percent of those polled favored dialogue with the United States, and 46 percent felt that American policy toward Iran was “to some extent correct.”

The conservative judiciary struck back with a vengeance, accusing the pollsters of funneling information to foreign intelligence agencies and tampering with the poll data. But the three men may be guilty of nothing more than their reformist associations–ties that make them enticing targets for conservatives hungry to demoralize a weakened opposition and consolidate power.

The trouble began this past fall, after Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, published the poll findings. By the first week of November, the judiciary had closed down both of the polling institutes that had spearheaded the study. The pollsters soon found themselves in solitary detention, while the judiciary targeted the head of the IRNA for publishing the findings and even accused a parliamentarian of illegally diverting state funds to the researchers.

Much to the dismay of members of Khatami’s party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, notoriously conservative judge Said Mortazavi is presiding over the hearings of the pollsters’ cases. Khatami commissioned a panel to investigate; his brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami–Participation Front leader and deputy speaker of the Parliament–condemned the arrests as “obviously politically motivated.”

The timing of the trials would seem to bear out that accusation. Iran was wracked by student protests in November and December over the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari, a professor who delivered a scathing indictment of Iran’s hard-line clerical rulers. Adding to the tension, President Khatami made a desperate effort to salvage his reformist agenda by presenting two controversial bills to Parliament last fall. One would expand presidential powers. The other would prevent the Guardian Council, a conservative oversight body that has veto power over all legislation, from drastically limiting the pool of political candidates. It’s unlikely that the council would curtail its own powers, however, and experts express pessimism about the prospects of Khatami’s last-ditch effort.

In this volatile climate, the pollster trial has pushed the reformists to the brink. Many suspect they may be next on the chopping block; others fear the annihilation of the main reformist party altogether. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were arrested lock, stock and barrel,” said one analyst.

Thwarted by hard-liners, who have blocked laws, thrown Khatami allies and reformist parliamentarians in jail and shut down nearly all dissenting papers, the Khatami government has done little but provide the conservatives with a veneer of democratic legitimacy. For many reformists, the pollster case was the last straw–President Khatami and Participation Front parliamentarians have threatened a mass walkout over the trial and two bills. As Mohammad Reza Khatami said, “Even if such an option is a bad one, it appears inevitable when compared to other options that are even worse.”

Stoking anti-reformists’ aggression is the threat–and potential economic and strategic promise–of a US presence just outside Iran’s borders. Any deals with the United States that would alleviate Iranians’ economic hardship would be an incredible prize, and conservatives and centrists are attempting to use the trial to make sure reformers aren’t the ones sitting at the negotiating table. The trial’s anti-American rhetoric serves an additional purpose–with it, conservatives can maintain their “Great Satan” line even if they seek to engage in back-room deals with the United States.

If there is a mass resignation, widespread speculation points to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to assume control of a temporary government. An influential moderate conservative who favors open economic relations while keeping Iran’s political process insulated from the outside world, Rafsanjani has succeeded in forming a loose coalition of technocrats, merchants and pragmatic clerics around him–and is cultivating the all-important blessing of conservative supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This may be the face of a new government–one that would pursue economic engagement with the United States but leave Iran’s political strife and authoritarianism unchanged. It all hinges on Khatami and his allies, however, and no one can predict whether they will act on their threats to resign. Abdi’s case is just the beginning–one warning sign, one symbolic arrest designed to push reformists to the breaking point.