There is calm again in Tehran, but the peace is likely to be only temporary. After a fearsome counterstrike by conservative forces, the students demanding more freedom in Iran have retreated to their dormitories. But if their voices have been stilled, the reform movement that they have been spearheading has not been abandoned. Tactical considerations counsel a retreat. The real questions are: When will the forces demanding liberalization in Iran rear up again and how violent will the conservative reaction be?
For six days last week, students held increasingly violent demonstrations in Tehran and at least a dozen other cities, clashing with police and Islamic militias. A police crackdown coupled with warnings of severe punishment — including possible death — ended the protests. The students suspended the demonstrations, the largest since the revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979, but insist that their 14 demands be met.
The troubles began when students peacefully protested the closure of the reformist newspaper Salaam. The paper was shut by the authorities after it began to publish classified documents that explained the assassinations of six Islamic intellectuals earlier this year. Allegedly, the men were murdered because they were investigating corruption among the “bonyads,” the “foundations” set up and run by religious groups that control much of the economy. Police and thugs supported by the fundamentalists broke up the initial protests, killing at least one student and injuring many more. That violence triggered the protests that then swept across Iran. Officials say two people were killed in the protests; dissidents claim the number is significantly higher.
The scale of the demonstrations shocked the authorities. That is clear from the reaction of President Mohammad Khatami, who until last week had been the voice of reform in Iran. The students may have expected the president to rally to their cause. Yet, from the start, he distanced himself from the students; by the end he felt compelled to join the hardliners and condemn the demonstrations.
There has been no slackening of Mr. Khatami’s pursuit of liberalization. He still seeks a more secular and open society in Iran. But he is a cautious reformer. Mr. Khatami was elected in a stunning landslide two years ago, when he won 70 percent of the vote. He also knows that despite the victory of reformers in municipal elections last year, the conservatives are still powerful, if not entrenched.
The president may have a popular mandate, but religious forces control the police, armed forces, Revolutionary Guard and intelligence services. They proved last week that they are not cowed. Their ability to draw tens of thousands of Iranians into the streets to support the regime only confirmed their strength. A confrontation will be bloody, and Mr. Khatami knows that does not serve his cause.
The conservatives are nervous, too, as proved by their overreaction to the protests. They are especially worried by parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. If that vote is free and fair, it is likely to strip them of their control of the legislature. With two-thirds of Iran’s population under the age of 25, the reformers know that time is on their side.
Although the focus of attention is the division between religious and more secular Iranians, the real struggle is about power and privilege. There are many genuinely devout people in Iran, but there are just as many for whom religion is a cloak behind which they can accumulate power and money. They are the ones most threatened by change. Reform and religious belief are not mutually exclusive: Reform and the stranglehold that the fundamentalists maintain over the economy are.
Widespread chaos serves the conservatives, not the reformers. Mass protests only give the authorities an excuse to crack down and consolidate power once again. The prospect of genuine disorder will give those moves a legitimacy they would not otherwise enjoy.
Mr. Khatami is well aware of the risks. That is why he has been so cautious. He has shown a real talent for political infighting. To date, he has won virtually all of the skirmishes with the conservatives. But popularity notwithstanding, he is in no position to confront head-on the religious authorities that ostensibly share power with his government. He needs the law on his side to prevail. The real concern is whether the students share his patience and appreciate the skillfulness of his maneuvering. If not, all his talents may be wasted, and the conservatives will have the excuse they need to lower the boom.
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