Iran's Religious Leader Tries to Defuse Clash With
By JOHN F. BURNS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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