Iranians are used to the sometimes violent internal power struggle taking place in their country.
But a recent spate of killings of Iranian dissidents - and the official admission Tuesday that a death squad operating inside the secretive intelligence apparatus was responsible - has shocked them twice over.
The unprecedented revelation is a boost for reformist President Mohamad Khatami, Iranians say. But even more significant, it may herald a new era of openness and official accountability in Iran, 20 years after the Islamic Revolution brought clerical rule.
"They decided they had no alternative but to let the people know what's happening - the truth," says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at the University of Tehran.
"In El Salvador and Chile, death squads killed intellectuals, and they were covered up. But in Iran it is published," he says. "That very fact must have been awkward and very difficult [to admit], but it shows the Islamic regime to be a genuine people-oriented system."
Mr. Khatami and his allies favor greater openness and the "rule of law" in Iran, and have been engaged in a bitter political battle since Khatami's landslide election victory in 1997. Conservative clerics have sought to thwart those plans and dominate crucial institutions like the intelligence services, parliament, and judiciary.
Iran's standing with other countries
The outcome is crucial to the United States - which for years has sought to "contain" Iran and brands it a "terrorist" state - especially since Khatami made an overture for dialogue with the US a year ago. Gains for Khatami would also confirm for Iran's neighbors that "exporting" the revolution is no longer on Tehran's agenda.
But reform has been slow, and the challenge to Khatami has proven so sharp that disillusion had begun to spread among Khatami supporters. Thugs armed with truncheons have broken up pro-Khatami rallies, ministers have been attacked in the streets, and high-profile allies - including the popular mayor of Tehran, who was imprisoned for alleged financial misconduct - have been brought down.
There has been widespread anxiety about the killings, which began in mid-November with the stabbing of a husband and wife who were members of a banned but tolerated opposition party. Within weeks, three writers who were critical of the conservative establishment had also been killed. Rumors of official complicity circulated.
Taking on secretive hard-line elements that may have wished to leave the killings unpunished, Khatami vowed that the murders would be investigated.
Mohsen Rezai, the hard-line former head of the Revolutionary Guards and now chief of Iran's highest strategic planning body, blamed "pressure groups linked to the Zionists" who "eliminate people not in power but who create problems in society."
After the first killings, intelligence chief Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi vowed that the culprits would be brought to justice. The Intelligence Ministry is believed by Western governments to have been responsible for scores of assassinations of dissidents and opponents abroad, mostly in the past. Rogue elements are also believed to operate beyond official sanction or control.
Crucially, Khatami was also backed up by Iran's supreme leader Sayed Ali Khamenei, who added his weight to the hunt for the perpetrators.
The result was an Intelligence Ministry statement distributed by Iran's official news agency: "A few of our colleagues - irresponsible, devious and obstinate persons - were among those arrested." The acts of these "traitors" were "quite contrary to the holy mission of the Intelligence Ministry and we condemn it."
Moderates are now calling for a review of the intelligence services' role in hard-line conservative activities. "This is the most hopeful sign yet that there can be reform in the Islamic Republic," says an Iranian analyst in Tehran. "It is a big achievement for Khatami, and the transparency and government accountability that he symbolizes. This may not be a turning point, but this decision required coordination and harmony at the top."
"So it appears that the Khatami government was not as weak and powerless as many observers believed it to be," says Professor Zibakalam. "But it would be naive to give all the credit to Khatami. If the supreme leader had not taken such a precise and important stance, Khatami would not have been able to make this matter public."
Also claiming responsibility
The shock over the killings also put the spotlight on a still-shadowy Islamic fundamentalist group that reportedly claimed responsibility and said it acted to reverse Khatami's agenda. The Fedayeen (devotees) of Pure Islam had earlier claimed responsibility for attacking a group of visiting Americans in November.
"The revolutionary executions are a warning to all those whose pens are in the service of foreigners and want Iran to return to foreign domination," said the statement published in the Khordad newspaper on Dec. 21. The statement was denied by one published in another paper, and attributed to the same group.
The Intelligence Ministry did not say how many of its own people it had arrested, but Iranians say that the public admission has changed the political landscape: "It shows that no news will be hidden," says an Iranian professional.