Violence flares as students clash with Islamic vigilantes
By Guy Dinmore in Tehran
August 30, 2000
Clashes erupted on Tuesday at the funeral of a policeman in Iran's western
town of Khorramabad, raising fears among supporters of Mohammad Khatami,
the weakened, pro-reform president, that the worsening political crisis
in the capital risks plunging the country into violence.
Iranian media reported that Norollah Abedi, governor general of Lorestan
province, was seriously injured at the funeral when he was stoned, kicked
and punched by "rioters".
Khorramabad has been the scene of violent clashes between Islamist vigilantes
known as Ansar-e-Hezbollah and radical supporters of the president since
last Thursday when Iran's main, pro-reform student group, the Office to
Foster Unity, tried to hold its annual national convention there.
The police sergeant eventually buried on Tuesday, a member of a security
and intelligence unit, was shot dead and several other policemen wounded
by unidentified assailants on Sunday night. Banks and shops were also attacked.
The province's deputy governor, a wheelchair-bound war veteran, and more
than 20 students were injured last week by Islamist militants chanting
slogans in defence of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The violence reflects the deep divisions running through Iran's ruling
circles. The Ansar-e-Hezbollah militants were supported by the Friday prayer
leader, who is appointed by the supreme leader, as well as conservative
members of parliament, while the students were given the go-ahead for their
meeting by President Khatami, his ally the interior minister and the provincial
The "rioters" who attacked the funeral procession appeared
to have belonged to Ansar-e-Hezbollah as, according to domestic reports,
they chanted slogans against the interior minister and the students.
Powerful conservative figures have accused the student organisation
of having been infiltrated by "anti-revolutionaries" bent on
turning the Islamic Republic into a secular state.
Student leaders in Tehran on Tuesday accused members of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful wing of the armed forces
under the control of Ayatollah Khamenei, of helping the militants and providing
them with vehicles.
The students said one of their number had been abducted and flogged
by the militants who told him that Lorestan province would become a stronghold
of the supreme leader should "war" break out between him and
In a rare direct challenge, the students called on the supreme leader
to clarify his relationship with "pro-violence groups using his name".
"We want him to declare his position," Mehdi Manouchehri told
The supreme leader denounced illegal violence in April after the attempted
assassination of a close aide to the president but the role he has played
in Iran's power struggle, and his relationship with Mr Khatami, have been
marked by ambiguity.
The 61-year-old ayatollah appears to have declared his hand on August
6, however, when he directly ordered the newly-elected and reformist-dominated
parliament to drop its plans to pass a more liberal media law.
Hardliners rallied outside parliament the next day and, according to
some pro-reform officials, were ready to storm the building if its delegates
had tried to resist the leader's command.
A reformist newspaper that published blunt criticism of the supreme
leader was immediately banned.
Under the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei, the judiciary had already closed
down almost all of Iran's liberal newspapers and jailed nine prominent
A high-level official close to the president described the situation
as "critical", saying dialogue between Mr Khatami's camp and
the conservatives had broken down.
"Their viewpoint is that the authority of the system is tied to
beatings, closures and demonstrating their power," he said.
"They believe their big mistake was letting the president be elected.
But we believe these sorts of acts will undermine the power of the ruler."
Mr Khatami, himself a mid-ranking cleric, was elected by a landslide
three years ago, defeating the candidate of the conservative establishment.
His aides believe hardliners are trying to wear him down and weaken him
in the eyes of voters ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next
"But Mr Khatami, under no circumstances, will reach any compromise.
I don't think he is powerless but he has reached a very difficult point
he has to pass. He has not decided to give up. We believe democracy will
win in the end," the official said.
The biggest fear of reformists now, he said, is that the voices of moderation
on both sides of the political divide will be drowned out by radicals at
each end of the spectrum pushing for violence.
Some analysts believe Ayatollah Khamenei is also acting under pressure,
and that if the Islamic system appears in serious danger then he and the
president will have to find common ground, as they did in July last year
when Tehran was rocked by serious unrest, also between students and vigilantes.
State television on Tuesday showed the two men seated together in a
meeting of senior figures. The supreme leader voiced his support for the
Ayatollah Khamenei came to power in 1989 on the death of Iran's revolutionary
leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But, unlike his predecessor, Mr Khamenei
was not the highest religious authority in Iran and has had to play the
role of balancing the historic left-right divide that existed even before
Mussa Qorbani, a cleric and conservative MP, justified the leader's
intervention, saying the press had insulted Islam and the new press law
would have contravened the constitution.
"Basically the leader, as he should, steps in on special occasions
when he thinks the system is jeopardised and there are measures to topple
the system," he told the FT.
Iran's policy of detente in the international sphere and its drive to
attract foreign investment were unchanged, he said.
Western businessmen in Tehran, however, voice concern at the setbacks
to Mr Khatami's administration and question whether Iran's first foray
into international capital markets, planned for later this year, will be
as well received as the central bank hopes.
Reformist MPs show little sign of backing down with some calling for
a parliamentary inquiry into the events in Khorramabad.
Tehran itself has not escaped violence either. A Qpoliceman was killed
in a grenade attack on Sunday night and five mortar bombs hit a former
army garrison on the eastern outskirts. The attacks are believed to have
been carried out by militants of the People's Mujahideen Organisation,
an Iraqi-based opposition group that has minimal support within Iran but
seems to try to profit from times of heightened political tension.