The busy Tehran square was packed with hundreds of dismayed onlookers, many of them women sobbing at the spectacle, according to recent press reports. 13 young men, stripped to the waist, were being flogged for offenses against the public order - mostly for drinking alcohol, which is forbidden in Iran, and for being seen with women to whom they were not related.
Since Mohamad Khatami, the reformist Iranian president, was re-elected by a landslide in June, there has been a spate of public floggings ordered by his hard-line opponents who control the judiciary. Hard-liners, it seems, are in a combative mood as they try to jerk back the hands of Iran's social clock - a task many believe to be impossible.
They insist such deterrent sentences are needed to combat "un-Islamic" behavior and rising crime rates.
"All should be sensitive toward the issue of the promotion of corrupt means and fight against the enemies' efforts to deprave our children," Iran's conservative judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, declared in defense of the public floggings.
For the reformers, however, the latest campaign against social "depravity" is a blatant attempt to embarrass and undermine the popular president, who is committed to fostering greater personal and political freedoms within the Islamic system. He has tried to give young people - the core of his power base - "an atmosphere in which they can breathe." His government has condemned the public floggings.
While the entrenched old guard has stymied many of Mr. Khatami's political reforms since he came to power four years ago, young people credit him with ushering in a freer social and cultural climate. Young couples have begun to date discreetly in public, women are wearing brighter headscarves, and bootlegged Western pop CDs - though officially taboo - are now easily available.
Until recently, it appeared to some Iranians that the old guard had resigned itself to a counterculture that was impossible to root out without endangering social peace, concentrating instead on the political battlefront. For others, a cultural backlash was inevitable: As some conservatives saw it, the rot had to be stopped before it eroded the foundations of the Islamic regime.
Police nationwide, charged with restoring "Islamic order," began a drive on Sunday to combat the "spread of decadent Western culture in society" and the "flagrant manifestations of corruption." Shop owners were told to remove mannequins wearing women's lingerie from their windows. Cafés and restaurants were barred from playing Western music and their owners warned not to serve women who wear too much makeup or otherwise fail to observe proper Islamic dress codes.
Selling posters of famous Western singers and movie stars has been banned. So, too, has the sale of pet monkeys and dogs, which are generally considered unclean in Islam but which have become popular as pets in parts of Iran.
In the holy city of Qom, the necktie, which had been staging a cautious comeback after 20 years in the cold following the 1979 Islamic revolution, has again been outlawed as a symbol of Western decadence.
"There is no law in Iran that prohibits displaying and wearing neckties, or selling dogs, or refusing food to women in makeup. They are imposing their own interpretations of Islamic rules as law," Karim Arqandehpour, the deputy head of the Press Guild Association, told the Associated Press.
Now, young Iranians are watching anxiously to see whether the president, who has generally avoided confrontation with the hard-liners, can prevent a return to a repressive social order.
On Sunday, Khatami, a middle-ranking cleric, gave them hope with a spirited speech to parliament. He denounced the tougher Islamic rules, including public floggings, which his reform camp fears are alienating the public and damaging Iran's attempts to cultivate an image abroad as "a model of religious democracy."
"In a society in which there is discrimination, poverty, and graft, you cannot expect youngsters not to break the law and stay the right course," he said. "With tough punishments [alone], you cannot remove social corruption.... Social corruption has deep roots and to remove those roots we should work together."
The reformist interior minister, Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari, also challenged the police crackdown, and he denounced the public lashings. "The [judiciary officials] have not thought out the consequences of such punishments.... We need to tune in divine teachings with our social situation to avoid hurting Iran's image."
In what analysts see as a positive sign, the floggings have spawned a lively and serious public debate on subjects once considered off-limits. Reformers, buoyant after Khatami's huge election victory, are preparing to use their muscle in parliament to pass laws forbidding public floggings. Even some senior religious leaders have questioned the validity of public punishments according to Islamic law.
"It's the first time that figures within the system have publicly criticized the use of Islamic punishments," says a Western diplomat. "It has become center stage in the political debate.
Although those convicted of morality offenses are routinely flogged in detention centers, public lashings had been extremely rare until recently. Hard-liners insist that the Koran, Islam's holy book, sanctions 80 lashes for drinking alcohol. Others say the punishment is discretionary, and that the application of such sentences in public is an incorrect interpretation of the Koran.
Most analysts in Iran say the timing of the cultural backlash, coming on the heels of June's presidential elections, proves it is primarily politically motivated. However, they add that many conservative judges are also genuinely concerned at what they perceive as a rise in immorality, which they blame on Khatami's tolerant policies.
"There is a trend in the Islamic world generally that when people get worried about social problems, the old guard, or fundamentalists, resort to fundamentalist punishments," the diplomat said.
Morteza Tehrani, a hard-line cleric in Qom, denounced reformers for challenging Islamic punishments. "What are these clownish words? You are destroying religion, challenging God's edicts," he sneered. "You think you can say anything just because you got the people's votes?"