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As Iran's Reformer Speaks, Anti-Reformers Sit and Scowl

The New York Times
September 30, 1999

TEHERAN -- Thousands of jubilant university students gathered Wednesday to hail the country's reformist President inside the sprawling, golden-domed shrine to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the puritanical Muslim cleric who led Iran's Islamic revolution 20 years ago.

The students pressed against barriers inside the shrine to chant the name of the President, Mohammad Khatami, punching the air with hand-lettered signs bearing slogans of support and crying "Death to the opponents of Khatami!"

So dense was the crowd that many were pressed almost against the glass walls of the green-roofed pavilion within the shrine that encloses the tombs of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989 at age 90, and his son, Ahmad Khomeini, a cleric who died in 1996 in his mid-50's.

But if the students' enthusiasm carried the unmistakable sense of a society in transition, it was also redolent of the formidable obstacles that Khatami, 53, a high-ranking cleric himself, will have to overcome to build a "civil society" -- his catch phrase since his landslide election victory 28 months ago.

In casting their votes, 20 million Iranian voters backed his pledge to establish a tolerant, law-abiding democracy that he has said would mitigate the harshness of Islamic rule without allowing it to be swept aside by Western-style secularism.

Khatami has been called the "Iranian Gorbachev," a reference to Mikhail S. Gorbachev's efforts as Soviet leader to reform the Communist system, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and his ouster in the early 1990's.

One similarity is that Khatami is an authentic member of the political establishment he now challenges. He emerged from the same ultraconservative seminary in Qum as the hard-line clerics who still cling doggedly to the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, and with them he took part in the "Islamic revolution" that overthrew the Shah in 1979.

What makes the difference were the years before his election in 1997, when he was sidelined by clerics to be director of the national library. There he plunged into a study of Western political thought and emerged with ideals that drew heavily from various philosophers who influenced the American Revolution, including Locke and Rousseau. Khatami's 290-page book on Western political thought is now a best seller around the campus of Teheran University.

But the President's supporters, concentrated among the two-thirds of the 70 million Iranians who are under 30 years old, are at least counterbalanced, for now, by his opponents, as today's events showed.

Sitting a few feet away from Khatami, rows of Muslim clerics and other influential figures responded impassively to his hour-long speech. They included Hassan Khomeini, the ginger-bearded grandson of the Ayatollah; he is 28, a middle-ranking cleric who has become an icon to Islamic conservatives.

Through waves of cheering and chanting by the students, the clerics offered no applause. Some stroked their beards, others played distractedly with prayer beads, some fanned themselves with programs for the gathering, which was part of a 10-day celebration of the centennial of Ayatollah Khomeini's birth.

The clerics' glumness was not relieved even when Khatami, responding to the cries of "Death to the opponents of Khatami!" rebuked the students.

"No, no, I don't like to hear slogans like that," he exclaimed. "I don't like to hear 'Death to opponents' or death to anybody, because as matters stand in our society at present, it will be interpreted in a very negative way, as meaning that anybody who does not share your views should be silenced, and that's not right at all. The Iran we want should be one where there will be room for all the different viewpoints, for all ideologies, even those that oppose the President. They, too, must have the right to express themselves."

While some Iranian clerics are aligned with Khatami, many others, probably a majority, are in the conservative camp with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Iran's Supreme Leader, a title bequeathed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei remains the country's most powerful figure, with effective control of the army, the police, the judiciary and the intelligence agencies, as well as the theological establishment. Under the Constitution, Khatami's powers as President are limited, and he relies heavily for his influence on the persuasive power of his popular support.

Khamenei, who did not attend Wednesday's gathering, has been engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse, blocking many of the President's programs and maneuvering to discredit and even jail some of his associates, but managing to avoid a direct confrontation, which many Iranians fear could lead to chaos.

So far the struggle has been waged with only occasional violence, and both sides seem keen to keep it that way as they approach the next crisis point: parliamentary elections in February, in which Khatami will attempt to wrest a majority from the conservatives.

Wednesday's meeting with the students was shadowed by the riots in July on the university campus, the worst disturbances since the 1979 revolution. The riots began with student protests over the closing of a reformist newspaper, but they spiraled out of control as the police and gangs of Islamic militia members attacked a dormitory, killing at least two students.

The conservatives appeared to have won the day then by calling huge crowds into Teheran's streets in a counterdemonstration, but popular outrage at the students' deaths prompted Khamenei to condemn the attack on the dormitory as "criminal."

Since July the conservatives have remained on the offensive. Earlier this month, they used a press court to close another leading reformist newspaper, Neshat, and to sentence its editor to a 30-month jail term, now under appeal, for "insulting the sanctity of Islam," among other things, through the paper's coverage of the riots.

Although a Government inquiry condemned the police for the campus attack, a revolutionary court, also under conservative control, announced two weeks ago that it had sentenced four people, apparently students, to death for their roles in the disturbances. No announcement has been made that the sentences were carried out, and reformers hope that they will be commuted to jail terms.

In the latest skirmish, hard-liners have attempted to stir public outrage against the reformers over the publication of a satirical essay in a Teheran campus magazine. It featured a student telling the 12th imam -- a central figure in the theology of Iran's Shiite Muslims -- that he would be too busy with exams to attend the reappearance on earth of the imam, an event that holds a sanctity among Shiites similar to the second coming of Jesus among Christians.

Conservative newspapers have run banner headlines on the affair, not mentioning that the original article appeared in a publication with a press run of 150 copies, and conservative students have rallied on the university campus, demanding the resignation of the Culture and Education Ministers, key allies of President Khatami.

In the face of the new attacks, Khatami's tactic has been to parade his own Islamic credentials while offering oratorical strikes against the conservatives. At today's meeting, he lavished praise on Ayatollah Khomeini and emphasized the importance he attached to university learning, as if to say that conservatives who condemn the campuses as centers of anti-Islamic sentiment and urge that they be closed have betrayed the Ayatollah's legacy.

While attacking the anti-imam satire as "an insult to religious values," he said the "bigger crime" was that of the conservatives "who have tried to convert a small wave into a big storm" in a bid to isolate the reformers.

But mostly Khatami concentrated on an appeal to the students to avoid provoking the hard-liners and giving them a pretext for another campus confrontation.

"We should remember that there are hands at work in our country that want to foster divisions among us and to set one group against another, with a view to creating chaos," he said. "So while you should defend your values, don't allow divisions to rule life on the campuses. You are there to ask questions, to learn, to engage in dialogue, not to allow the universities to descend into chaos."


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