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Iran 's reformers scramble to contain student anger

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Iran 's mainstream reformers scrambled on Wednesday to head off rising anger on university campuses, following five days of Islamic vigilante violence against the student movement.

Pro-reform MPs from the Islamic Iran Participation Front, led by the brother of President Mohammad Khatami, denounced attacks by hardline gangs, backed by elements of the security forces, on a big student gathering in the western city of Khorramabad.

But they also warned students to remain calm and not to take to the streets, in a repetition of six days of social unrest in July 1999 that rocked the Islamic Republic.

Last week scores of students were hurt - about 35 people were sent to hospital - after vigilantes armed with knives and clubs broke up the annual summer meeting of the pro-reform Office to Consolidate Unity, Iran 's biggest university movement.

One policeman was killed and others injured in several days of ensuing violence. State television said the provincial governor suffered a fractured skull when he was attacked by hardliners at the officer's funeral.

"If you fall into the trap the opposition has laid and disregard the rules of the game just because they do, then you have become prisoners in their hands," Front leader and MP Mohammad Reza Khatami told a Tehran student gathering on Wednesday.


"We must tolerate their violence without ourselves resorting to violence in return," Khatami, the president's younger brother, said in an address to the Front's student wing.

His remarks followed public allegations on Tuesday by student organisers that elements of the security forces, at the behest of hardline conservatives, had abetted the violence in Khorramabad.

They also reflect growing concern among reformers, now with a majority in the new parliament, that the influential student movement that helped put them in office may be leaving them behind.

"The students are being radicalised in reaction to the violence of the Right," cautioned Maysam Saeedi, a former student firebrand and now a reformist MP from Tehran.

"But you must be aware that both the extreme Right and the radical students are like two parts of a scissors that will cut the reform movement to shreds," said Saeedi.

"The threat we face today, especially among the student movement, is that our opponents are trying to radicalise the campuses by depriving them of hope for the future."

Last week's violence marked the latest in a string of set-backs for the reform movement after its powerful showing in parliamentary polls.

Beginning in April, conservatives in control of the judiciary closed down the reformist press after Iran 's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced a number of newspapers as "bases of the enemy".


That touched off a wider crackdown that has seen prominent editors and publishers thrown into jail, the reformist majority in parliament effectively neutralised by clerical power and a renewal of hardline vigilante violence.

Throughout, the Khatami government has had to look on helplessly, a stance that has alienated many of the young people who provided part of his core support in the 1997 presidential election.

Under Iran 's constitution, the elected executive controls neither the armed forces nor the police, making it impossible for him to protect his constituents' rights of free assembly and free expression.

The judiciary, a stronghold of the clerical establishment, has also proven overtly hostile to Khatami's vision of a civil society within the Islamic system of governement.

That has left many of the president's supporters, particularly the young, increasingly angry and disillusioned that their electoral strength has not translated into systemic political and social reforms.

"It is regrettable that in a country that is in the forefront of the idea of 'dialogue of civilisations', such atrocities are committed against students," acknowledged Mohammad Reza Khatami, in a reference to his brother's policy of detente.

"One really wonders how such things can happen in a civilised country on the eve of the 21st century. These events would probably never take place anywhere else in the world."


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