The battle for control of Iran's future is now effectively being fought by university students.
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.
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.
Khatami had rocked the conservative establishment in May 1997 with a landslide victory in presidential elections, vowing to reestablish the rule of law, a "civic society," and to loosen social restrictions. But all the other levers of power like the parliament, or majlis, the judiciary and the armed forces, and security and intelligence units have remained in hard-line hands.
Khatami has long called for authority over security and police forces.
The challenge to Khatami's rule has been constant, and the subsequent battle for control has seesawed back and forth. Khatami scored a victory last December, when the usually secretive intelligence ministry was forced to divulge that "rogue" members among its ranks had served as a death squad that killed five left-leaning intellectuals.
Draconian press measures
The most recent chain of events began last Wednesday, when the majlis approved in principle new draconian press measures, put forward by hard-liners to muzzle the increasingly irreverent media prior to parliamentary elections next February. If that vote follows the trend of recent previous polls, the conservative majority could be in jeopardy.
The key to keeping Khatami's agenda high in the public eye has been support by popular, moderate newspapers, which Iranians note have become bolder than ever at reporting internal Iranian events.
The press effectively helped reformist candidates sweep local elections last February.
So the amendments to press law, Iranians say, were designed to reverse what is sometimes called the "Khatami thaw," by stifling press freedoms that Khatami himself drafted 14 years ago as the minister of culture and Islamic guidance.
The legislation must first be debated in detail before it becomes law. The new rules would significantly increase government oversight of journalists and newspapers, make individual journalists, not publishers, responsible for content, and ban the use of pseudonyms.
It also prohibits publication of anything that might violate vague "Islamic values," or tarnish the reputation of senior clerics.
Almost immediately after the majlis vote, the popular pro-Khatami Salam newspaper was shut down under the pretext that it had published an internal intelligence ministry memo. That prompted 200 students to stage a peaceful demonstration on Thursday, which later led to the attacks at the university.
Though Khatami may be winning this round against Iran's right wing, the press amendment is still on the table, and if passed by the conservative majlis, could make spreading his populist message more difficult.
"Watch the Iranian newspapers; they are playing a most significant role," advised an Iranian professional who asked not to be named.
"But look at it from the conservative point of view: There is too much freedom, and people are taking advantage and misusing it. This is a solution, as they see it, to restrict and limit the channels expressing views that they consider to be extremist."
IRAN'S KEY PLAYERS Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei: Iran's supreme religious leader since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini He has the final say in in all of Iran's domestic and foreign issues.
President Mohamad Khatami: Among clerics, he is a relative moderate and was ousted as culture minister in the 1980s for being too liberal.
Parliament Speaker Nateq Nouri: He wields powerful conservative influence over the already rightist parliament.