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In Iran, a challenge to hardliners

Students Wednesday held a fifth day of protests against the power of fundamentalist ayatollahs.

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Iranians "won't pour into the streets to change the regime" because the "Islamic regime has real grass-roots support," Mr. Zibakalam says. "But people say that institutions run by the supreme leader [Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei] must be more accountable."

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While students have always been the vanguard of such change in Iran, their efforts today are being eclipsed by a vicious war of words going on at the top. Senior reform figures are blasting the court ruling, and even some conservatives have chimed in.

Some protesters Tuesday even vented their anger against Khatami, calling for him to step down - a move that would immediately cast doubt on right-wing legitimacy but also trigger a crisis. But while the protests have caught on, and spread to other campuses and other cities, they have not broadly caught fire.

A veteran Iranian analyst says that with such critical comments from the establishment itself, it is surprising that the students aren't taking bolder steps. "With that kind of backing,," he says, "the students should have burned Tehran down three times over."

Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karrubi - lining up with two-thirds of the reform-dominated parliament - on Sunday rejected the death sentence. "As a cleric and spokesman for many religious dignitaries whom I have contacted, I express my disgust at this shameful verdict," Mr. Karrubi said.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say on all issues of state and controls the military, warned Monday that he would deploy "popular forces to intervene" if the power struggle does not ease.

Not all students support the campus protests. Speaking after the rally on Tuesday at the University of Tehran, a student dressed in the most conservative, all-black manner, sought out a foreign journalist. "I just wanted to speak in favor of the judiciary," said the woman, who would not give her name. "This decision [to execute Aghajari] has been taken by all the people of Iran. [The reformers] are questioning my country, my religion, and my beliefs, and I object to them. We respect freedom, until it violates the freedom of others," she said. "Freedom of speech has its limits."

Tired of being pilloried as ineffective, and watching the aura of his two landslide presidential victories since 1997 dim, Khatami is challenging conservative power head-on, with two legislative bills. Hardliners accuse Khatami of attempting a "dictatorial" power grab. But the embattled president has hit back, saying, "Only dictators fear democracy."

Conservatives control the judiciary, security services and key unelected bodies, have shut down 80 reform newspapers, and have jailed dozens of prominent reform figures. But some analysts say that the death sentence against Aghajari - and the arrest last week of Abbas Abdi, a student who played a key role in the US Embassy seizure, and who is now a key reformist - were telling strategic blunders.

"All it does is discredit the judiciary, and shows there is no strategy on the conservative side," says political scientist Zibakalam. "The very fact that the enemies of reform are so stupid gives hope, because those enemies are so short sighted."