Iran tries peaceful revolution

On Saturday, Iran's students plan to deny hard-liners' their wish: a violent street fight.

Violence often defines pivotal moments in the Middle East, and events marking their memory have a history of turning violent, too.

But Iranian students - the same group that one year ago became embroiled in the worst street violence in 20 years - are turning to flower power.

"We will confront fists with flowers," declares student leader Ibrahim Sheikh, describing anniversary plans for Saturday for a mass distribution of blooms.

This weekend's effort to stage a nonviolent memorial is part of Iran's tense struggle over who will control the speed of political change in the Islamic Republic. This past year has witnessed an intensification of a vicious tug-of-war between hard-line conservative clerics and popular reformists who back the moderate President Mohamad Khatami.

The protest ironically borrows a page from history. "The Shah [pro-West Reza Pahlavi, overthrown in 1979] was really brought down with flowers," says Reza Alavi, an Iranian analyst who is a former editor of the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review. "I was at the front of the first march against him, and everyone came out with flowers and put them in the barrels of police guns."

Ahead of this weekend's memorial, students say they want no right-wing backlash - and no more street battles. Last year's protest turned violent when hard-line vigilantes weighed in and provided an excuse for a police crackdown.

"We are soldiers against violence," says student leader Sheikh. "We have our pens and our voices only, and with violence would lose to those people with knives who are more powerful."

During the past year's political battles, both sides catalog a list of victories and defeats. Some 20 reformist newspapers have been shut down since April, and a dozen of the noisiest pro-democracy activists are in prison. But elections in February ushered in a reformist parliament loyal to Mr. Khatami that is bent on changing Draconian restrictions.

The street battles last year were a watershed, analysts say, exposing the risks of violence - and how Iran's political landscape is still evolving. "You can shut down the press, the labor unions, and thwart parliament, but finally it is the students that have brought down regimes around the world," says Mr. Alavi.

Student leaders are the first to note that, unlike two decades ago, their aim is the reform - not the overthrow - of Iran's entrenched Islamic system. But as Iran has begun a democratic, people-driven opening up to the outside world after years of isolation, hardliners are finding that it is difficult to stop at half measures.

"The lesson for the rightists is that you can't have a semifree society," says an Iranian observer who asked not to be named. "It is either free or totalitarian. Now there is the atmosphere of martial law, but the key word for Khatami is caution, so he does not provide an excuse for a crackdown."

Though young Iranians who make up 60 percent of the population are unhappy with what they see as the slow pace of change, there are increasing signs that the reform shift is irreversible.

Besides the presidency, reformists now control the parliament, "so like a bird we now have two wings and can fly," says a student. Other levers of power, however - the judiciary, security forces, broadcast media, the Council of Guardians (which can veto legislation), and the unelected Expediency Council - are still in the grip of hardliners.

Even they note the sea change in Iranian politics, however. Just a week before the anniversary date, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fired the national police chief, who students accuse of orchestrating the attack on their dormitory last year, which left at least one student dead.

"That shows a nervousness at the top," says a Western diplomat. "The riots created a very big impression that internal stability could be at stake. Now the whole political establishment knows that they would lose with instability."

Last year on July 8, the police moved onto the University of Tehran to attack students who had staged a peaceful protest against the closure of a reformist newspaper, Salam. Students then took their protest to the streets. While a small minority sought violence, in the following days student ranks were infiltrated by hard-line agent provocateurs whose violent acts damage the students' reputation.

"Student tactics ever since have been exhausting to the hardliners," says Mr. Semati. "Because of the imbalance of power, this Gandhi style is working. The whole psyche of the police has changed, because [the students are] no longer a security question. It's psychological warfare, and even the security forces are buying into non-violence."

But on the same day that reformists drew hope from the sacking of the police chief - and the detention on Monday of the police commander who ordered the attack - a court imprisoned a lawyer representing wounded students and another human rights lawyer.

A low-key vigil is planned to mark the dormitory raid tonight, with a poetry reading. A bill to prevent security forces from entering university campuses is now before the new parliament.

And parliament has made it clear, with reformists dominating the 290-seat chamber, that it is ready for business. A far-reaching press bill is on the table that will reverse restrictions.

But analysts say that reformists must chalk up some concrete successes in the coming year - Khatami's last, before new elections - to mollify critics on their own side.

"If the reformists move too slow, they could lose steam," says Semati. "If they go too fast, they could lose everything."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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