Bellowing hard-line slogans, 20 or so bearded youths in black shirts and checkered scarves appeared from nowhere on motor bikes to disrupt a rally in support of Iran's popular president, Mohamad Khatami.
"Khatami, shame on you, give up your reforms," they shouted as they sped toward a cleric (not Khatami) who was addressing the small crowd. He quickly fled in fear, shepherded into a nearby van by a few frightened intellectuals. The Islamic vigilantes shouted insults and shoved other participants before melting into the distance with a squeal of tires.
In an otherwise calm campaign, the ruckus highlighted the tension that is growing as Iranians prepare to vote for a new president on June 8.
While there is little doubt that the poll will install Mr. Khatami for a second four-year term, looming issues remain for this nation of 65 million people.
Iran is at a pivotal moment. Twenty-two years after a revolution that installed a conservative Islamic form of government, its very underpinnings are challenged by the forces of globalization, demographic change - two-thirds of Iranians are under 30 - and secularism. Iranians of all stripes are struggling to define democracy within an Islamic system.
Khatami, a moderate cleric, says Iran must liberalize that system or risk alienating the people altogether. While some opponents say he is too radical and some say he is too cautious, the majority of citizens support him.
Khatami was swept to power four years ago with 69 percent of the vote. But despite his huge popularity, he has operated more like an opposition leader than a chief executive. Ultimate power under the Constitution lies in the hands of the supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in the last year has increasingly supported the president's opponents. While Khatami has eased the social atmosphere and preached greater freedom of expression and religious democracy, his opponents kept a grip on key power centers, including the judiciary, security forces, state broadcasting, and a conservative body that can veto legislation by the reformist-dominated parliament.
His conservative opponents fear that his drive to liberalize the Islamic system could sweep it away altogether. Some even portray the broad-based reform movement as an unwitting fifth column of the United States, which is supposedly bent on trying to undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic.
Reformers argue that the very popularity of Khatami - a middle-ranking cleric with impeccable religious and revolutionary credentials - gives the Islamic system its legitimacy. They argue he is the last best chance for a religious system that faces grave dangers if it is not reformed.
That was a warning Khatami himself delivered in a recent election address on state radio: "Any effort to disappoint the people will backfire," he said. "If our people cannot reach their demands within the Islamic system, God forbid, they may turn their back on the system and look ... somewhere else."
Many already are. Secularization is now a social movement in Iran, analysts say. Some reformist clerics have even called for a separation between mosque and state - a step Khatami does not support. They fear religion has been tarnished by its involvement in politics - especially because the Islamic system has failed to deliver a better lot economically for most Iranians, which was one of the promises of the revolution.
But most Iranians have no memories of the 1979 revolution or what life was like under the shah. Moreover, satellite television, the Internet, and increasing numbers of tourists to Iran have introduced these young people to different ideas and cultures.
"The majority of people want a separation between religion and politics," says one analyst. "That doesn't mean for a minute they are against Islam. They would still practice their religion, but they see it as a private matter."
But a slow pace of reform has led to disillusionment among some who voted for Khatami. The president has worked cautiously to avoid a showdown with his opponents. He has preferred consensus and compromise over confrontation, refusing to exploit "people power" for fear it could trigger a hard-line backlash and rob the reform camp of its gains.
But many of Khatami's supporters see the upcoming election as a referendum on reform. They hope he secures at least the 20 million votes he won in 1997, although the electorate has grown by 5 million voters with many youths reaching the voting age of 15.
Because powerful hard-liners have throttled Khatami's democratic reform efforts, some supporters are ambivalent about the vote. "I'm not satisfied. But I will vote because it's my duty and Khatami is the best choice we have.... If we don't vote for him, we are playing into the hands of those who want to deprive us of freedom," says Farnaz, a 21-year-old student at Beheshti University.
Her boyfriend, Ardelan, says he won't vote: "I am religious, but I don't want a religious government anymore. They use religion as a weapon. It is better nowadays, but they think by giving us a little freedom, it's enough."
Analysts and diplomats say that conservative actions such as closing newspapers and arresting reformists have overshadowed Khatami's real successes, which are sometimes hard to quantify.
"It is a testament to Khatami that the conservatives haven't rallied behind a serious candidate," says a senior Western diplomat. The nine hopefuls running against Khatami are independent conservatives, but none is an established political figure. "The prevalent view is that the reform movement has gone back in the last year. I don't agree," he adds. "It's been marking time and there have been many casualties. But it is unstoppable."
Foremost among Khatami's achievements has been fostering a "consciousness of civil society," says Dr. Nasser Hadian, an assistant professor of law and political science at Tehran University. He has also popularized the idea that people have "rights as well as duties."
At his only scheduled campaign rally, Khatami told 30,000 cheering supporters last week that his greatest success had been in shifting the terms of political debate since 1997.
"Your votes brought those slogans out of isolation, and today everyone who is dealing with the people is talking about reform and civil society, freedom, justice and the rights of the people," he said. "Is there a greater victory than this?"
There has also been incremental change in government institutions as more reformers rise through the hierarchy and several new reformist newspapers have opened in the past few months, analysts say. As Khatami put it on at the rally: "The road is long and there are many obstacles in our way. But there is no other way, in today's world, than to establish the rule of the people."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor