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Iran's Religious Leader Tries to Defuse Clash With Reformist President

The New York Times
October 4, 1999

TEHERAN, Iran -- Iran's supreme religious leader moved decisively on Friday to head off a fresh confrontation with the country's reformist President, instructing hard-line Muslim clerics and their loyalists among the police not to "take matters into their own hands" in a potentially explosive dispute involving university students.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a conservative cleric who wields paramount religious and political power here, used a major sermon to defuse tensions over a recent satire in a Teheran campus magazine that hard-liners had denounced as insulting to one of Islam's most revered saints. His appeal came 10 weeks after student protests had touched off the worst rioting in Teheran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

"I have heard that some people in some quarters have said that they will take matters into their own hands and will mete out punishment," Khamenei said. "Never! Never! In an Islamic system, punishment is the authorities' prerogative. Any such act from any person is forbidden, and now that I have forbidden it, it is not only legally barred but religiously forbidden."

Equally stunning, Khamenei gave effusive backing to President Mohammad Khatami, his rival in a tense power struggle between conservative clerics and a reform bloc led by Khatami, a leading cleric himself, who won a landslide election in 1997 on a promise to make Islamic rule more democratic.

Until now, most Iranians have seen Khamenei as the main obstacle to President Khatami's efforts to make Government accountable, to subordinate the police and courts to an impartial legal system, and to broaden freedoms of speech and press.

In wording with a broad resonance among the conservative clergy, Khamenei said that President Khatami "is

pious; he loves the household of the Prophet Mohammed, and he is working for the rebirth of Islam." Among reformers, the reference to the President working for a renewal of Islam was taken as particularly significant, since it appeared to be an acceptance, even if only tactical, of Khatami's insistence that what he wants is a more tolerant Islamic state, not Western-style secularism in which the Muslim faith is relegated to the private domain.

In other remarks, Khamenei hinted that his shift of tone, after months of pronouncements that appeared intended to isolate President Khatami, resulted from concern that a new showdown might not end in a triumph for the hard-liners, given Khatami's strong popular support.

Even in the senior clergy, the hard-liners have suffered major defections, including several high-ranking clerics who were enthusiastic supporters of the event that traumatized Americans 20 years ago -- the Islamic militants' seizure of the United States Embassy, and the holding of American diplomats as hostages for 444 days.

Khamenei said he had met with "leading officials" of the conservative and reform factions within the Government in recent days in an effort to reduce tensions, and claimed that his efforts had been successful. Failing to find common ground, he implied, could lead to both sides losing out to more radical elements who favor sidelining Islam.

"The country and the revolution need unity," he said. "The regime's two main forces, both faithful to the revolution, must reconcile themselves so as to isolate those who do not belong to us."

Khamenei's remarks were assured of maximum impact by virtue of their having been delivered at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the forbidding cleric who imposed a puritanical Islamic regime on Iran after 1979 that began to moderate only after Khatami won the Presidency, with more than 20 million of the 29 million votes cast.

Khamenei's sermon at Friday prayers, rebroadcast across Iran, capped 10 days of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Khomeini, who died in 1989.

In his references to the student satirists, Khamenei appeared to take a leaf out of President Khatami's book, saying that it would be wrong to "defame all students" because "two or three, either deliberately or through ignorance," had insulted Islam.

In demanding that the students not be subjected to summary justice, as many opponents of Islamic rule have been since 1979, Khamenei described his instruction that they be given a proper trial as a fatwa, a religious decree that is considered binding on all Muslims.

But he coupled this with a demand for a policy change by the Education and Culture Ministers, Khatami allies who have licensed reformist newspapers, broadened intellectual freedoms in schools and colleges, and otherwise worked to soften Islamic rule.

"I expected more from the country's cultural managers," he said. "I do not want the cultural atmosphere to be such that a person feels he can offer insults with impunity, even where such insults occur through carelessness."

He added: "I seriously call on the cultural officials to rethink and revise their policies."

The mixed signals left Iranians to ponder where the balance of Khamenei's message lay. Among Khatami supporters, the prevailing view was Khamenei and his allies saw profound dangers in a new showdown. In this, the reformers said, there were echoes of 1979, when the Shah decided not to fight for his throne.

Like the Shah, they said, the clerics in power now either abhor the prospect of a bloodbath, or fear that trying to settle the issue by force could end with the army, the police and even the Revolutionary Guards, the main bulwark of Islamic rule, splintering between conservatives and reformers.

In any case, Khamenei's decision to hold out an olive branch came as a relief to Iranians, who had braced themselves for a new showdown on Teheran's campuses after the conservatives took up the issue of the student satire.

After quelling the July riots by busing tens of thousands of supporters into Teheran for a show of force, Islamic hard-liners went on a broad offensive, holding secret trials of some student leaders, banning a leading reformist newspaper, and warning of further crackdowns through the speeches of hard-line conservative clerics.

Last week, they appeared to have found a pretext for a new crackdown in the publication of a satire in an obscure campus magazine. The magazine, Wave, was circulated among students at the Amir Kabir University in Teheran, a scientific college, and took the form of an imaginary dialogue between a student and the Imam of the Age, an Islamic saint whose reappearance on earth ushers in a new age of justice, which is a major tenet of belief among Iran's Shiite Muslims.

In the dialogue, the student asked the Imam to delay his re-appearance for a few days to allow the student to complete exams and other pending chores.

The affair quickly mushroomed, with hard-line newspapers running banner headlines, conservative students staging protests demanding that the authors be hanged, and a senior police commander saying he would personally carry out any sentence imposed by Muslim clerics. Sensing the risk of a replay of July's events, when police units joined with Islamic militia gangs in an attack on a student dormitory, killing at least two students, President Khatami stepped in with a condemnation of the satire as "insulting" to Islam, but said the greater offense was the hard-liners' efforts to turn "a small wave into a storm."

After Khamenei's sermon on Friday, the risk of the affair getting out of hand appeared to have been contained. But there were doubts as to how long a truce could last, given the countdown to parliamentary elections in February, when President Khatami hopes to win a majority that would strengthen the reform drive. In recent weeks, conservative clerics have vowed to use their powers in a powerful overseer body, the Council of Guardians, to reject any reformist candidates they deem threatening to Islamic rule.


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