By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for more transparent media regulations on Sunday in an apparent attempt to shield journalists from a crackdown by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a hardline force virulently opposed to Western influence.
Rouhani is a pragmatic moderate who wants to improve Iran's relations with the West and supports a landmark agreement reached in July to curb Tehran's nuclear program in return for an easing of international sanctions.
But ultimate power is held by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls both the IRGC and the judiciary. Even as Iran implements the nuclear agreement, the IRGC has rounded up several journalists, as well as artists and U.S. citizens, on charges including propaganda and espionage.
In comments that clearly highlighted his differences with the hardliners, Rouhani said: "Transparent regulations will stop certain people picking up on a word or a sentence in a media outlet and putting their freedom at risk."
With a nod to the United States and Britain, frequent subjects of hardliners' suspicions, he said it was a shame that no Iranian publication had lasted as long as the New York Times or the Times of London.
Shutting down a newspaper should be the last resort, "just as execution is always the last punishment", he said at the opening ceremony of a press exhibition in Tehran.
Critics of the recent arrests say they appear to be arbitrary and the charges ill-defined. While some newspapers are routinely targeted, Rouhani said others enjoy close ties to security bodies.
"By reading their headlines you know who will be arrested tomorrow," he said.
In June, Rouhani called on the judiciary to be more transparent in dealing with so-called political and security crimes.
But the IRGC and judiciary have shown no intention of obeying the president. Journalists, writers and social media activists continue to be interrogated and arrested by government agencies including the IRGC, a United Nations investigator said in October.
The powerful Guards have arrested at least five journalists in recent days, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Wednesday, and accused them of being part of an "infiltration network" linked to "hostile Western countries".
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said on Sunday the wave of arrests was politically motivated as "one political faction is using the concept of infiltration to eliminate its rivals".
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Sam Wilkin, William Maclean and Mark Trevelyan)