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Violence flares as students clash with Islamic vigilantes

By Guy Dinmore in Tehran
Financial Times
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 governor.

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 the president.

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 reporters.

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 newspapermen.

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 May.

"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 president.

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 the revolution.

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.


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