Hard-liners linked to abductions

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FOREIGN tourists kidnapped, policemen condemned, a powerful minister sacked. There seems no end to President Mohammad Khatami's struggle to control the Iran his supporters voted for - an Islamic Republic that embraces democracy and a "civil society".

No sooner had an Iranian investigation blamed seven senior policemen for last month's street violence in Tehran and the conservative minister of justice - Mohamed Yazdi, the scourge of the country's free press - been replaced at the weekend, than news came of the kidnapping of four foreign tourists and their Iranian guide in the province of Kerman.

A politically motivated abduction aimed at Mr Khatami by the five hostage- takers - two of them women - or an act of banditry in an area notorious for its drug-trafficking and extortion? Two of the three kidnapped Spaniards were priests, the fourth tourist an Italian - these countries are not high on the Iranian xenophobes' list of Satanic nations. Three other Italians had been abducted in Iran in June, a German banker in February; all were released by Iranian police, although no motive was ever revealed.

But only hours before the latest kidnappings, President Khatami had ordered an inquiry into the harassment of Western tourists in Iran, an investigation that is certain to prove that conservatives have been involved in such attacks.

Last year, American tourists were stoned in their bus by young men in Tehran. And last week a group of English women - while watching the eclipse in the city of Isfahan - were confronted by Iranian women with a banner proclaiming "Death to America". They had mistaken the Britons for Americans.

Quite apart from the fact that Iran has little over Tuscany as a tourist destination, tourism is not exactly a barrel of laughs for the average tourist. The Islamic holy places leave imperishable memories but women must obey strict Muslim dress codes, alcohol is forbidden and swimming pools are closed in major cities. Foreign visitors are rare in Iran. President Khatami has been trying to encourage them - partly because he wants to open Iran to foreigners, partly because they bring hard currency with them. Yesterday's kidnapping - however it is resolved - is not going to bring the charter flights swooping into Tehran.

But it has otherwise been a good weekend for the reformist President, whose opponents thought, only last month, that they had silenced him and destroyed his supporters' chances in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The investigation by the National Security Council - which is run by Mr Khatami - found that seven named policemen were responsible for the first student riots when they allowed vigilantes to storm university dormitories in Tehran. The government committee cleared one man whom the students wanted fired - the police commander, Hedayat Lotfian.

Within hours, Mr Yazdi - the justice minister whose closure of the newspaper Salam provoked the student violence - was replaced by Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi. The Hamshahri newspaper, once run by Mr Khatami's friend, the imprisoned mayor of Tehran, reported the arrest of 100 right-wing vigilantes, quickly countered by the conservative Kayhan, which reported that "instigators" of the riots had been condemned to death.

So it is a tough political battle in Iran, but not one without subtlety. When the editor of Salam was quietly told that he could reopen under a different name, he responded that far more liberal papers were being published in Tehran - and that since Salam readers were now boosting their circulation, he intended to stay closed.