Those watching the still-uncertain course of the Islamic Revolution in Iran have seen in the past two weeks what could prove to be another defining moment in its history. Not unlike that of 20 years ago, in November 1979, when students took to the streets to redirect the course of a then-young revolution - seizing the US embassy and putting their country in the more radical direction that continued until the 1997 election of President Mohamad Khatami, with his promise of change and reform.
This time, two decades later, there is no US embassy to seize. But students again have taken to the streets not to disrupt the revolution, but to protest that Khatami's promise of greater freedom and his call for a civil society and the rule of law were being denied them.
Swift and decisive action by conservative clerical forces has cleared the students from the streets and, now, from their campuses. But that has by no means ended the matter.
The conservative forces, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have no difficulty in applying their strength through the military and the revolutionary guards, as well as the behavior-enforcing groups Ansari Hesbollah and the Basijii. Probably no one knows that better than Khatami, who reached out rhetorically to the students at the outset of their demonstrations, but then quickly fell in line with the regime's order that the streets be cleared. Khatami after all is a cleric himself and a product of the Khomeini period who despite his emphasis on reform knows the limits of his power.
An observer must wonder, however what deal may have been struck by or with Khatami in the in-house debate leading up to the swift put-down of the demonstrators. Probably both his supporters and conservatives recognized the danger in what had begun as fairly peaceful protests and evolved, with help from nonstudent infiltrators, into rioting.
But even the most rigid of the conservative forces must recognize, like it or not, that the demands of the students have broad resonance in a populace weary of the revolution, and whose support for the reform-minded Khatami was evident in his 70 percent electoral mandate, his continued popularity, and the overwhelming success of his supporters in recent municipal elections. Khatami and demands for reform identified with him cannot easily be pushed aside.
Both sides have pulled back, but probably not for long. The student leadership, now organized in response to the crisis in a new grouping called the Select Council of Sit-in Students, has issued a long list of demands, including the resignation of the chief of police, and a call for a meeting with clerical leadership.
The current crisis erupted when Islamic vigilantes, supported or encouraged by security forces, assaulted students who protested tough new media curbs enacted by parliament.
Behind the student sentiment is the restiveness of probably most young Iranians - 50 percent of them below the age of 20 - impatient with the revolution's social strictures and frustrated by an economy unable to provide them jobs. That frustration is certain to simmer and grow. Ahead looms the important parliamentary elections of March 2000 - a critical test of strength for the Khatami forces.
The US, still viewing Iran from its sanctions-laden distance, has virtually no ability to affect the course of this ongoing confrontation between revolutionary forces in Iran.
The US posture must start from that reality, as appears to be the case in the administration's cautious comments to date. But that reticence can also be carried too far. American interests in the region have been and surely will be affected by the course taken by Iran and its revolution. Arguably, those interests would be better served by the more moderate direction advocated by Khatami.
At appropriate moments the US should continue to affirm its readiness for dialogue delayed now for 20 long years. The slight give announced recently in US sanctions affecting food grains and medical imports has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. Nor have President Clinton's recent remarks, in which he expressed an understanding for Iran's grievances over aspects of past US policy, comments termed "statesmanlike" by Khatami.
There will always be, as apparent in the regime's statements on the student actions, the proclivity to allege the meddling hand of the "Great Satan." But that has long been the political rallying cry of the hard-liners in that regime, whatever the US says or does. And informed electoral opinion in Iran has probably long since set that aside.
The US need not and should not hesitate publicly to affirm its understanding and support for calls for greater freedoms, democratic values and pluralism under a rule of law within Iran's Islamic revolution. On that fundamental point, the record should be clear.
*Bruce Laingen is president of The American Academy of Diplomacy, in Washington. He was taken hostage as charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society