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Iran: Liberals, Conservatives Both Won And Lost

Prague, 15 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The past week of unrest in Iran has given both the country's liberals and conservatives the opportunity to demonstrate their considerable strength in back-and-forth shows of street force.

But by doing so, each side also has exposed the fragility of Iran's current social contract and revealed how quickly the tensions between them can lead to violence.

Analysts say that poses serious questions for both camps as to how they will deal with the ongoing struggle between them in the future.

For now, the unrest in Iran seems to have abated. The Iranian Interior Ministry announced today that security forces have brought the crisis under control, and student leaders say they have called off more demonstrations. Correspondents say the dormitory complex of Tehran University -- where the student protests began last Thursday -- is largely deserted and that police are patrolling the area.

But analysts say the end of student unrest in Iran does not represent a solution, only a stalemate. They say the past week of unrest -- the most serious in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- saw first the liberal students, then hard-line conservatives, score enough wins and losses that both sides must now take serious stock of where to go from here.

Gary Sick is an expert on Iranian affairs at Columbia University in New York. He told RFE/RL today that at the beginning of the demonstrations, the liberal students won great popular support. This was because their protest originally began as a peaceful demonstration calling for the end to a religious court's ban on a liberal newspaper.

After hard-line vigilantes and police swept down on that freedom-of-speech rally at the Tehran University dormitory and beat at least one person to death, the ranks of the protestors swelled, with both students and other liberal-minded Iranians outraged by the attack.

At their height, the demonstrations put as many as 20,000 people onto Tehran's streets and swept through many other major Iranian cities, as well. The protests rapidly became both a street vote-of-confidence for the reformist program of relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami and an expression of frustration with its slow progress. That sent a clear message to Iran's hard-liners that the electorate which voted Khatami into office with a landslide victory in 1997 remains as adamant in its desire for greater personal liberties as ever.

But analysts say that by the third or fourth day, the student protests lost sight of their original demands and turned into riots that appeared to be attacks on the whole ruling system. That left no choice for Khatami but to condemn the unrest as harshly as did conservative Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. The conservatives then went on the offensive, suppressing the protests by force and mounting a counter-rally by some 100,000 hard-liners in Tehran yesterday.

Sick says the chief result of the week of unrest has been to illustrate the growing polarization in Iranian society and to complicate efforts by moderate leaders to slowly push reforms through Iran's highly conservative power structure. Gary Sick:

"The key thing that has changed here is that the working relationship which Khatami had developed with Khamenei and to slowly push a reform movement...has been severely strained. We had demos where Khatami's picture was being carried around by the students and Khamenei's picture was being torn down. And in the big [hard-line] demonstration held in Tehran [yesterday], it was the reverse, everyone was carrying Khamenei. And there were no pictures of Khatami, and Khatami did not attend the rally. That polarization is dangerous."

Both of Iran's camps must now face the question of how they can continue to live with a reform movement whose slow pace clearly frustrates many liberals but equally threatens many conservatives. Sick says that Khatami and other more moderate leaders have until now sought to assure liberal-minded Iranians that if the pace of reform is slow, it nevertheless will be steady. They have sought to methodically introduce a set of democratic mechanisms that have not existed in the Islamic Republic before. These include the holding of municipal elections, opening up of the media, and calling for equal application of the law for all Iranians, regardless of their political or clerical connections.

But Khatami's strategy has not been as vigorous or confrontational as many of his supporters would like, and when conservatives rise up in anger, he tends to back down before resuming again. Sick says that raises a tough leadership challenge, which Khatami must now resolve if he is avoid further unrest like that just seen. Gary Sick says:

"Whether [that strategy] will be given time to work remains to be seen. And there seems to be a tremendous and growing impatience on the part of the people who favor reform, which is a large majority of the population, and of the group of individuals who control the security forces and the conservative forces and they're afraid that their position is going to be undercut. What this requires if [Khatami] is going to succeed with his reforms is to persuade the students that time is on their side and instant change is not in the cards. That is a very hard thing to do as a leader, to tell people to be patient."

The conservatives, too, face a leadership challenge. To quell the unrest, hard-liners opted to crack down on it using both the police and the same Ansar-e-Hezbollah vigilantes whose initial attacks on the students provoked the protests in the first place. That strategy may have been effective in clearing the streets, but it ran the real risk of fanning the unrest into a street battle between two mobs which -- under other circumstances -- could have spun out of control.

Sick calls the hard-liners' decision to give free rein to the vigilantes one of the most worrisome elements in the recent events for Iran's prospects for peaceful change.

Gary Sick says: "One of the results that should have come out of this episode is that after the attack on the dormitories at Tehran University, there should have been a clear effort by the government to bring the Hezbollah forces under control. Instead, the security forces openly collaborated with them. The police, instead of trying to keep the two groups apart and trying to calm the situation down, in fact worked with the Hezbollah and that was a very disturbing development, which again suggests that Iran can't police its own police, and that they are not working under the control of the elected government, which is Khatami. And under those circumstances, things not only got out of control, but then got extremely bloody and ugly."

Sick says the government must now bring the vigilantes under control before they add further to Iran's polarization problem. The country will soon face a major new test in trying to accommodate both its liberal and conservative camps as it moves toward parliamentary elections in the spring.

And how well Iran's social contract withstands the emotions surrounding that vote will depend in large part on how the vigilantes behave.