Victory Over US Plays Into Iran's Big Debate

As fans reveled in Cup win yesterday, leader battled hard-liners over reforms and ties to West.

As practiced as Iranian hard-liners have become at burning American flags over the past two decades, they were not quick enough in their latest attempt.

Thousands of jubilant Iranians flooded onto the streets of the capital early Monday morning to celebrate the Iranian soccer team's 2-to-1 victory over the US in the World Cup. They blew horns, blocked traffic, and hugged and kissed the very few American onlookers.

But amid flapping banners, a group of men - one Iranian nearby called them "extremists" - hoisted an American flag for burning and threw leaflets that read "Down with the USA" in the Farsi language.

The American flag poked up through the crowd, and hard-liners brandished a lighter, setting the first threads aflame. But then the flag was whisked away, and disappeared under someone's shirt and out into the crowd. Other Iranians tore up the leaflets.

The street scuffle reflects a divisive political battle at the top in Iran: between Islamic conservatives and more-open reformists, between those who still deem the US the "Great Satan" and those who would allow the Islamic Republic to warm up to America and the West.

The soccer victory was a bright spot amid trying times for Iran's popular, reform-minded president.

"This celebration is not because we beat the Americans," explains one young man, sweat pouring off his forehead as he jostles in the melee. "It is because we like to be with the Americans."

The mood has been less celebratory among those supporting the reform-minded regime of President Mohamad Khatami, who swept to office with 70 percent of the popular vote in May 1997 elections. But Mr. Khatami's promise of greater openness abroad and less restrictions at home has been slow to bear fruit. Right-wing clerical opposition has aimed to stall or reverse such changes.

And on Sunday - just hours before the midnight soccer match - Khatami's plans suffered their most severe setback yet.

Confounding analysts who thought that conservative parliamentarians would not dare to oust Khatami's outspoken interior minister for fear that a popular backlash might spark street violence, Abdullah Nouri was narrowly impeached by a vote of deputies.

The blow for Khatami is especially significant, because he staunchly defended Mr. Nouri as "one of the most competent ministers" whose absence would "harm both the government and the nation."

Khatami counterattacked immediately, naming Nouri to be vice president for development and social affairs.

"The conservatives showed a rare sophistication," says one Iranian analyst here. "They were very careful not to give the impression that a conservative faction is running the show, which it is. It means that they are going all the way - but with what aim?"

Senior clerics have warned that such open infighting helps Iran's enemies, and in recent Friday prayers Ayatollah Emami Kashani warned that "differences must not be allowed to culminate in hostility and spite...."

But in leading the right-wing onslaught, parliamentarian Mohammed Reza Bohonar warned that Nouri was leading Iran toward divisions as severe as those in Yugoslavia. Opening Iran to "suspicious groups" will have an unstable result so that "no stone will stay on top of the others."

Ahmad Tavakkoli, editorial director of the center-right Farda newspaper, says Khatami's troubles are not part of an orchestrated campaign to topple him. "[Conservative members of parliament] say the Interior Ministry is jeopardizing the security of the country," he says. "But there is no better alternative to Khatami: He is popular, so he is the best one to deal with the problems."

BUT hard-line moves against Nouri are just one element of a three-pronged attack. Tehran's popular mayor - who helped orchestrate Khatami's election win - is now in court on corruption charges, and two reformist newspapers face shutdown for taking on the conservative establishment.

Khatami's bold call in January for a new "cultural dialogue" with the United States also found result this week, and complicates the picture. In a statement broadcast here just moments before the Iran-US soccer match, President Clinton said he hoped that the game "can be another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations."

Days before, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the two countries should pursue a "road map" to reach "normal relations."

Any such improvement, though, is deemed by some hard-liners to undermine the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which swept away the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi. Nouri's downfall "sent a message" to Khatami that he is going too fast and too far. Observers say that next to be called before parliament may be reformist Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

That such a scenario is not only possible, but likely, shows how far right-wing aspirations have grown in recent months. Almost absent from the dialogue today are the Ansar e-Hizbollahi, or "Followers of the Party of God," who until six months ago imposed their hard-line thinking with violent attacks against reformist newspapers, confronted rallying students, and ensured street compliance with strict dress codes for women - visibly loosened of late.

In their place, analysts say, is a renewal of legal and democratic means as tools by conservatives. It fits well with Khatami's promise to restore the rule of law in Iran, and will be the likely legacy of his first progressive interior minister.

"The risk of a backlash is great, but instead of coming to terms with the reality that 20 million Iranians are behind Khatami, [conservatives] are choosing to ignore that," says the Iranian. When Tehran's mayor was arrested in April, "nobody thought they would go that far - and they did it." The same is happening now.

Even among Khatami supporters there is increasing anxiety. "Expectations were highest among the young, and they were confident that the first changes would lead to more," says a Western diplomat here. "But now even small changes seem under threat. People aren't stupid - they know that conservatives have put obstacles in Khatami's path, so they have become angry." The diplomat likens the risk of Khatami losing momentum to riding a bike. "You can't go too fast, but you can't go too slow, either."

One of Khatami's greatest worries may be inadvertently following in the footsteps of Abdolhassan Bani Sadr, a once-popular president who "was seen off when he used his mandate too aggressively," says another diplomat. Mr. Sadr disguised himself as a woman to flee Iran in 1986. To bring that point closer to home, some Khatami functions have been disrupted by chants of "Bani Sadr, Bani Sadr."

The root problem, some argue, is that Khatami has been far more successful in subtly changing the roots of Iran's political system than it may at first appear.

Opponents of Khatami warned during the election campaign that the changes he was calling for would unravel Iran's revolutionary society, and that "peace and tranquility" would give way to constant tension.

In that context, some argue, current attacks on the reformist regime "display the biggest worry of the conservatives that things are getting out of hand and that nothing is sacred anymore," says the Iranian analyst. Despite the soccer victory, they want to keep the flag burners at work.

"They are trying to get back to the 'good old days,' he adds, "when they were in control, and there were a limited number of voices."

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