The hopes of students for a peaceful protest in Iran this weekend wilted in clouds of tear gas.
By midnight Saturday, several hundred right-wing vigilantes armed with clubs and lengths of electrical cable had taken over Tehran's Revolution Square.
They hunted down suspect stragglers, chasing them on motorcycles in displays of mob mentality.
"The conservatives are ready for the final act, and the reformists do not want to give them an excuse for that," says a reform-minded Iranian official who asked not to be named. "Both sides have reached a very sensitive stage: it's now a question of winning or losing, not just making gains."
Pro-democracy students handed out long red and pink gladioluses on Saturday, peacefully marking the first anniversary of a bloody police assault on a student dormitory, which last year triggered the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But radicals on both sides were bent on violence. Police charged at thousands of students and demonstrators who were smashing bus and shop windows and, according to one witness, chanting "death to the clerical government."
Particularly worrisome to the right: common Iranians also took part in the weekend demonstrations and contributed to the destructive violence.
"This is the bad part of it, that reformists were trying to avoid," says the government official. "If you bring anarchists to the street who are fed up with everything, it prepares the ground for law enforcement to crack down."
The risk now is also broader, he adds, because the battle for control has reached its most critical point since President Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997.
"In the past, the big shots on both sides sent their foot soldiers to fight at a lower level," says the official. "But now the level has changed, and it is at the very top. The level of disagreement is between institutions, between parliament and the [right-wing] Council of Guardians. The next step is all-out war, so people are very careful."
Peace in Iran has prevailed for most of the past year, though hard-line clerics have sought to turn back the popular tide of support for the moderate Mr. Khatami, whose supporters swept into parliament in February elections.
Hard-liners still control the judiciary and security units, and have closed some 20 reform newspapers and imprisoned top activists in recent months. However, hard-line thugs of the Ansar e-Hizbullah group - instruments who carry out the conservatives' agenda and who dominated this weekend's fight - had kept a low profile until now.
"Of course those who are losing power are not happy, but the trend is that pro-violent forces are being marginalized," says Hossein Paya, head of the reformist Tarh-e No publishing house here.
"Before, [hard-liners] thought that violence was a revolutionary act, and that the public was behind them," he adds. "But now people see these as backward performances, from those not able to keep up with the times."
Still, Iranians say despite that trend and Khatami's promise of the "rule of law," a new degree of volatility will now prevail until presidential elections scheduled for next year.
Even before this weekend's violence - which saw dozens of protesters injured by thugs wielding broken bottles, and scores arrested - Khatami warned conservatives not to impose their views on Iranians, who are questioning their Islamic system of rule as never before.
"We must not expect people to behave as we like, and [threaten] to suppress them if they don't," he said. "People must be allowed to speak freely and criticize their government. If people are left unsatisfied, this will one day lead to an explosion."
For conservatives on the retreat from parliament and public opinion, there is consolation only in the hurly-burly of Iranian politics - and the perhaps distant hope that things can turnaround as quickly as they fell apart.
"This is a young and dynamic country - things can change in one day," says Hassan Ghofari Fard, a US-educated conservative politician who lost his parliament seat.
"One thing is for sure, that people believe in the pillar of the Revolution, in the [religious] leadership of this country, whether they be left-wing or right-wing," he adds.
Mindful that violence plays into the hands of hard-liners, the students had been careful to cast the remembrance of the dorm raid in peaceful terms. The main student group, the Office for Fostering Unity, released a statement absolving its members of blame for the street violence, saying that their "[students] had nothing to do with this incident."
Declaring a day of "flower power" protest, in fact, they sent bundles of gladioluses to senior hard-line clergymen - including one rumored to be linked to the Hizbullah groups - and to the security forces and state-run broadcast media.
Student leaders spent the day visiting high-profile "victims of violence" and their families, including Said Hajjarian, one of the architects of the reform movement who barely survived a would-be assassin's bullet earlier this year.
"What you did today was very beautiful ... you prevented violence from happening," he told the students from his wheelchair, before the street battles began.
Victory of pro-democracy elements "depends on the reformers, and how they will make use of the opportunities now here," he later told the Monitor. "If they don't do it right, there is a good chance the conservatives will regain their position."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society