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No clear victor in Iran's week-long tug of war

The streets are quiet, but hard-liners and reformists are still wrestling for control.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1999



AMMAN, JORDAN

The scale of violent protests during the past week in Iran has rocked the Islamic Republic. But it's still unclear what the final scorecard may turn out to be in the ongoing battle between hard-liners and moderate reformists.

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Six days of pro-democracy student protest and riots - the largest public unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution - gave way late on Tuesday to a massive security crackdown and a "unity rally" on Wednesday.

Called by senior clergy, an estimated 100,000 people reaffirmed support for the Islamic system. Portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - who ushered in clerical rule with the Islamic revolution - and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were much in evidence. Posters of the reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami, ubiquitous during the student protest, were all but gone.

By yesterday, however, the streets were clear, the demonstrations apparently at an end.

"I think everybody will claim victory," says a Tehran-based Western diplomat. "For 24 hours it was good for the hard-liners, but if you step back you will see that this week was a very visible demonstration of people power. Taboos have been broken, and you can't put the genie back in the bottle."

"Any thinking person in the 'system' should now realize the extent of discontent and the need for some reforms," says another Western diplomat. "That may strengthen the president's position."

Hard-liners nevertheless sounded triumphant, and Mr. Khatami's agenda of restoring a civil society to Iran - and even opening up to the West and the United States - seemed to be put on hold at the moment.

Speaking at the rally, Hassan Rouhani, secretary of Iran's top security body, blamed "bandits and saboteurs" for the violent clashes and declared: "The atmosphere of our society has been dirtied over the past few days.... Our revolution needs a sweeping cleanup and this will help advance the cause of the regime and the revolution."

Stance of Khatami

Even the popular Khatami, whose luster has dimmed in the eyes of many students by not acting decisively enough during the crisis, took a tough stance after the once-peaceful demonstrations devolved into riots.

Making a clear distinction between peaceful students and those who were behind the destruction of shops and the burning of cars, Khatami blamed people with "evil aims" and said, "we shall stand in their way."

In the past, Khatami's troubles with trying to reform Iran's political system - despite a 70 percent landslide mandate he was given by Iranian voters two years ago - have led to comparisons with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader in the 1980s whose initial reforms eventually led to the collapse of the regime and took him along with it.

"One similarity is that neither of them wanted to destroy the system," says a European diplomat in Tehran with long experience in the Soviet Union. "Basically they want to maintain the status quo. They just want to have a more humane state."

For that reason, Khatami himself may have been surprised by the tone of the protests. "Khatami is rather conservative, and it must have been dismaying for him that people were shouting against the leader," says one of the Western diplomats.

"I wouldn't write Khatami off at this point, which is the inference of the Gorbachev analogy," he adds. "But it's really a watershed - that people felt confident enough to fight back and to shout these slogans. For a significant minority on the street, they didn't want reform; they wanted to change the system."

Where Iran goes from here

The importance of Iran's power struggle will become only more significant in the coming months, as Iranians prepare to vote in parliamentary elections in February. Hard-liners could lose their grip on this key institution if recent voting trends continue.

"People underestimate the force that public opinion has become and what a force the press has become," says a European diplomat. "There is unprecedented scrutiny, and it will be difficult to stop. It would be stupid for people to try, though some people will."

The riots "gave fuel to the hard-liners, but that doesn't mean it was a major setback," says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at the University of Tehran. "The things that caused the disturbances are still there, and they won't disappear just because there was a huge rally in support of the regime."

The prospects of a Khatami victory against the hard-liners in this episode had looked likely just a few days before, when political factions across Iran's right-weighted political spectrum sided with the students. But Iranians and diplomats alike say that extremists on both sides saw advantage in more violence.

"There were lots of thugs bent on creating as much damage as possible," says a diplomat. They "were right-wing thugs hoping to create the impression of instability."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society