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Iran: Protests Highlight Reformist Students' Frustration With Khatami

  • Charles Recknagel

Student-led protests in Tehran appear to be subsiding after seven nights of unrest and a strong security crackdown around the university area. The clashes highlighted some shifts in Iran's usual alliances as many demonstrators called for the resignation of moderate President Mohammad Khatami along with the rest of the regime. RFE/RL looks at the protests and what they say about changes in Iran's political scene.

Prague, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When Iranian President Mohammad Khatami won re-election two years ago, one of the groups he appealed to most strongly for support was reform-minded students.

So it must have come as an unpleasant rebuff for Khatami and his reformist allies in the Majlis (parliament) when the student-led protests of the past week regularly called for the president's resignation.

The cries of "Khatami, Khatami, Resign, Resign" were reported to be as frequent as the students' equally strident calls for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- whom reformist students view as a hard-liner -- plus the rest of the ruling establishment.

Still, if calls for Khatami's resignation were unwelcome, they could hardly have come as a surprise. Many analysts say reformist students have become increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change and have lost patience with Khatami's pleas for patience.

Neil Partrick, a regional specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, told RFE/RL many reformist students lost confidence in Khatami's ability to deliver change within the framework of Iran's establishment even before his re-election in 2001.

"There has been some popular frustration for some time. The last Majlis elections and [Khatami's] own re-election before that I don't think were an affirmation of very strong waves of support for him but they were expressions of a desire for change. So I think the frustrations have been there from the point at which he was re-elected," Partrick said.

Khatami's re-election came on the heels of a prolonged -- and ongoing -- crackdown by hard-liners on reformist gains made early in the president's first term. The crackdown has seen scores of reformist newspapers closed by hard-line courts and the arrests of dozens of political activists. Khatami himself has expressed frustration over the hard-liners' offensive and at times has threatened to resign.

But if the recent protests have partly highlighted the reformist students' frustration with Khatami, they have made it no clearer whom the students would prefer to take his place. The street clashes between the students and the vigilantes revealed no new opposition figure or organization ready to translate disillusionment into political action.

That may mean that, despite the slogans, the initiative of the reform movement is still firmly in the hands of Khatami and his allies in the reform-dominated Majlis. Some reformist leaders in the Majlis have strong links to student groups, and they are likely now to try to bring the protesters back into the mainstream of the reformist movement.

Partridge described the likely efforts this way: "There are forces within the Majlis, in particular the Iran Participation Front, which in the past at least have had good links with some of the student groups. The trouble is that some of those student groups had a broadly reformist orientation that may now, of course, be being overtaken by more angry and discontented forces. But the leader of the Participation Front, Khatami's brother [Mohammad-Reza], still has some standing, and he may try to ride these forces as far as he can."

The analyst said the success of any efforts to calm the students' anger will largely depend on how much Khatami accepts the protests as a message to redouble his efforts and -- even more so -- upon whether conservatives now see a need to accommodate any renewed pressure for change.

Some analysts say a few conservative leaders, such as former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, could take the pragmatic view that giving Khatami more room to maneuver might benefit the conservatives. It would assure that the leadership of the reform movement remains within the establishment and that an increasingly discredited Khatami does not himself resign in frustration.

Rafsanjani is the leader of the powerful Guardians Council, which vets parliamentary legislation for conformity with the values of the Islamic revolution. His council recently dealt heavy blows to the president by sending back for revision bills which, among other things, would increase the president's ability to punish judges who ignore due legal process in the trials of reformist activists.

But other analysts say the hard-line-dominated establishment may be too inflexible to respond pragmatically to any street protests. Far larger nationwide protests in 1999 were violently put down after they degenerated into rioting and led to no political concessions.

Ali Ansari, an expert on Iranian politics at Durham University in England, said he is constantly surprised by the unwillingness of the hard-line leadership to ease pressure on the reformists, even when the hard-liners clearly have the upper hand. "What for me is the most amazing thing about the Iranian political process is the sheer inability of the hard-line conservatives to know when they are on a winner and to stop," Ansari said.

Many observers predict that if Iran's hard-line leadership does not accommodate a measure of change, social discontent will continue to build until the reform movement passes outside the establishment and directly challenges it. However, nobody knows how long that could take, and there are substantial forces the regime can draw upon to counter street threats.

Among those forces are vigilante organizations made up of young people who are just as determined to preserve the status quo as reformist students are to change it. The vigilantes belong to state-linked organizations and are usually given a free hand by police to violently break up student demonstrations.

Vigilante groups played such a prominent role in cracking down on this past week's protest -- including going into student dormitories to beat sleeping students -- that the government finally had to forcefully curb them.

The reining-in of the vigilantes could have been because hard-line leaders felt they had done their job and that their further presence would only incite new protests. Or the government's action may have been a first clear concession to the reformist students in hopes of easing the street pressure.

Which explanation is correct will only be known once the political consequences of the latest protests become clearer in the weeks ahead.