Amid drum-tight political tension in Iran, demonstrating students Wednesday mounted their boldest challenge yet to the hard-line clergy's grip on power during a fifth straight day of protest.
But while the students' words grew tougher yesterday, their turnout grew thinner.
Student leaders called for a division between mosque and state, and more accountable clerical rule - demands considered to be heresy in some quarters here.
The protests are the most significant student action since 1999, when large street demonstrations erupted over the closure of a reform newspaper and were violently put down by proregime vigilantes.
Violence could be touched off again, some analysts warn, if the student actions spark broader unrest - or if hardline elements that control the security services decide to crack down.
"The clerics who are not hard-line have to come forward, and not let the demands of the people be sacrificed to fascist interpretations of religion," declared Mehdi Habibi, head of the local Islamic student union. "The real democracy that we are talking about depends on the demands of the people, the vote of the people. Any other form is not acceptable. Religious democracy is in contradiction to real democracy."
Using a death sentence passed on a reformist professor as a focal point, the students are tapping into deepening frustration with the slow pace of change promised by President Mohammad Khatami, whose popular mandate has been thwarted by unelected conservatives. In his first statement on the issue, Mr. Khatami said yesterday that the verdict "never should have been issued" and warned: "Under the current circumstances, no measures should be taken that promote tension."
Though barely more than 1,000 students turned out at Amir Kabir University - far fewer than the thousands that marched on campuses earlier in the week - the bold words from the podium brought cheers. Policemen bolstered their numbers on city blocks around the campus, a known political hotbed that produced the radical students who seized the US Embassy during the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"This is a critical time, and deep down, the conservatives are on the run," says an Iranian professor who asked not to be named. The death sentence - and several recent arrests of prominent reformers - is meant to "create chaos, create an intimidating atmosphere, and destroy the morale of the reform camp. If they can't kill the engine, they want to take out the high-profile actors that give people hope."
Students yesterday hung a noose from the podium to decry the death sentence for blasphemy passed against Hashem Aghajari, an academic who questioned clerical rule in a speech last spring. Aghajari's lawyer yesterday announced that his client would not seek an appeal - throwing down the gantlet to the judiciary to carry out the sentence.
"People are frustrated; they have lost hope; and I fear we might have some blind eruption of violence without any political objective - and that is dangerous," says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at the University of Tehran, where thousands of students marched on Tuesday.
Iranians "won't pour into the streets to change the regime" because the "Islamic regime has real grass-roots support," Mr. Zibakalam says. "But people say that institutions run by the supreme leader [Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei] must be more accountable."
While students have always been the vanguard of such change in Iran, their efforts today are being eclipsed by a vicious war of words going on at the top. Senior reform figures are blasting the court ruling, and even some conservatives have chimed in.
Some protesters Tuesday even vented their anger against Khatami, calling for him to step down - a move that would immediately cast doubt on right-wing legitimacy but also trigger a crisis. But while the protests have caught on, and spread to other campuses and other cities, they have not broadly caught fire.
A veteran Iranian analyst says that with such critical comments from the establishment itself, it is surprising that the students aren't taking bolder steps. "With that kind of backing,," he says, "the students should have burned Tehran down three times over."
Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karrubi - lining up with two-thirds of the reform-dominated parliament - on Sunday rejected the death sentence. "As a cleric and spokesman for many religious dignitaries whom I have contacted, I express my disgust at this shameful verdict," Mr. Karrubi said.
Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say on all issues of state and controls the military, warned Monday that he would deploy "popular forces to intervene" if the power struggle does not ease.
Not all students support the campus protests. Speaking after the rally on Tuesday at the University of Tehran, a student dressed in the most conservative, all-black manner, sought out a foreign journalist. "I just wanted to speak in favor of the judiciary," said the woman, who would not give her name. "This decision [to execute Aghajari] has been taken by all the people of Iran. [The reformers] are questioning my country, my religion, and my beliefs, and I object to them. We respect freedom, until it violates the freedom of others," she said. "Freedom of speech has its limits."
Tired of being pilloried as ineffective, and watching the aura of his two landslide presidential victories since 1997 dim, Khatami is challenging conservative power head-on, with two legislative bills. Hardliners accuse Khatami of attempting a "dictatorial" power grab. But the embattled president has hit back, saying, "Only dictators fear democracy."
Conservatives control the judiciary, security services and key unelected bodies, have shut down 80 reform newspapers, and have jailed dozens of prominent reform figures. But some analysts say that the death sentence against Aghajari - and the arrest last week of Abbas Abdi, a student who played a key role in the US Embassy seizure, and who is now a key reformist - were telling strategic blunders.
"All it does is discredit the judiciary, and shows there is no strategy on the conservative side," says political scientist Zibakalam. "The very fact that the enemies of reform are so stupid gives hope, because those enemies are so short sighted."