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Struggle for Iran's reins of power

Four days of university protests may mark historic shift in balance of power in favor of pro-democracy reformists.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 1999


The battle for control of Iran's future is now effectively being fought by university students.

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Yesterday students marched in Tehran for the fourth day of - sometimes violent - protests. Students have played a leading role in Iran's political history. And not since the Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979 (and prompted the takeover of the US Embassy) has Iran seen this scale of public discontent.

The protests, triggered by restrictions on the press and police violence, reflect a power struggle between conservative Islamic clerics and the reformist followers of President Mohamad Khatami. The students are now backing the pro-democracy reformists - even to the point of openly criticizing Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Some observers are already calling the demonstrations - and brutal attacks by police - a watershed political event in Iran.

"For the first time, the hard-liners and the extremists are being portrayed in a negative light," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, the deputy editor in chief of the English-language Iran News in Tehran. "There is no overt support as they used to have, to justify their actions. Even the rightists are condemning this as unacceptable, so some believe that this could be the beginning of the end of these little extremist groups that did whatever they wanted and got away with it."

What initially started as a peaceful campus protest on Thursday - primarily against the closure of a pro-Khatami newspaper - is now widening to include calls for deeper reforms. The escalation is the result of an attack on students at a Tehran dormitory Friday, first by Islamist thugs known as Ansar e-Hizbolah, and then by the police. Up to six students were reported to be dead, some two dozen were hospitalized, and scores were arrested.

High-level anxiety

Pro-reform rallies have in the past been broken up by Ansar - shadowy crowbar- and chain-wielding Islamist vigilantes. But the brutal crackdown this time caused a high-level anxiety in the government because of the deep divisions it exposed between the intelligence and security arms of the state. The crackdown also has caused worry because of the almost universal condemnation that has followed - a phenomenon most surprising to observers in Tehran.

The reaction from the appointed university loyalists of Ayatollah Khamenei was significant. His representatives came down on the side of the students and chastized "members of law-enforcement forces and irresponsible elements."

The events have laid bare deep divisions even among conservatives in Iran. Years from now, some say, historians may look back and determine that this most recent episode was what made reform of Iran's unwieldly Islamic system inevitable.

During the protests, the students chanted "Either Islam and the law, or another revolution," and called for the execution of the police chief. "Death to despotism! Death to dictators!" they shouted.

The Khatami administration has moved swiftly to denounce security forces and demand that police be put under the control of the interior ministry, rather than the clerical establishment.

Since coming to power, Mr. Khatami - possibly the most acutely aware of the difficulties of reforming such a behemoth of a political system, where centers of power do not always line up with the will of the "government" - has moved cautiously on reform. The students are demanding speedier change.