Iran's hardliners reclaim streets

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The Independent Online
FROM VICTORY to political defeat in 24 hours. President Mohamed Khatami's extraordinary success over his conservative opponents - forcing even Iran's unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to sympathise with Mr Khatami's student supporters - has been crushed by the anarchy of those very same students.

And yesterday, marching through the streets of Tehran in their tens of thousands - infinitely outnumbering those who came out to support Mr Khatami's government of "civil society" - came Ayatollah Khamenei's men, screaming insults at the "mean and wretched enemies of Islam" and shouting the old slogans: death to America; death to Israel; death to hypocrites.

We used to hear this all through the revolution and the hard, rigid years that followed. "Our blood is our gift to our leader," they shouted. In a flicker of a theological eye, all Iran's hopes of democracy seemed to have been crushed. And back, too, came the threats. Hassan Rowhani, a senior cleric, announced to the thousands of "Islamic" demonstrators that students who had damaged public property - by inference Mr Khatami's supporters - would be tried as enemies of the state, a hanging charge if ever there was one.

Mikhail Gorbachev tried to give Communism a human face and failed. Mr Khatami was trying - is trying - to give the Islamic Republic a human face. But can he succeed? By the very nature of his democratic election, Mr Khatami could never control the crowds. He believed he was their servant, not the other way round. But those who cluster around the Supreme Leader, the vigilantes with their sticks, the morality police, they are the servants of the clerics. So their massive crowd yesterday was awesomely controlled. Mr Khatami's span out of control, after Iran's initial support for the students who protested at police raids that followed the closing of a pro-Khatami newspaper.

Who exactly did burn the buses, loot shops and try to storm the Interior Ministry on Tuesday in express opposition to Mr Khatami's own wishes? In his long, sad public address on Tuesday night, the President tried to draw a distinction between the original student demonstrations, which he had supported, and the anarchy that followed. The initial police raids, he said, had been "an insult to the university". But there had been a "deviation". Indeed there had.

"Some of the newly arrested people were not students." They had "ill intentions" and would be "dispersed". The President then went on to praise the newspapers supporting Ali Khamenei which had all along condemned the student protests. It was a painful volte face, a grim reminder not just of the fickleness of politics in the Islamic republic but the dangers of giving moral support - however conditioned - to those who elected you without using a controlling hand.

Obviously, the President hopes he can get away with the suggestion that the rioters on Tuesday were not students. But Ali Khamenei was ready for that. They were, he said, "a group of vicious people, supported by certain bankrupt political groups and encouraged by foreign enemies, engaged in ... destruction". It could have come straight from a central committee.

As, in a sense, it did. There were no pictures of Mr Khatami among yesterday's solemn, angry crowds. Plenty of Khamenei banners. And there was no doubt who they thought the "bankrupt political groups" were. There may be no show trials, and President Khatami, a decent, intelligent man who has many of the most senior clergy on his side, may yet pull through. But there must be many among the conservatives who would like, after the ritual condemnation, a little purging.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has been blaming Israel and the United States for interfering in Iran's internal affairs, because they had commented on them. Indeed, one of President Khatami's deepest embarrassments is the uncalled-for support he seems to get, with varying warmth, from Washington. Now Israel's new Foreign Minister, David Levy, has been saying that he hopes Iran will one day end its hostility towards Israel which, he added, had not been encouraging the student protests.

"Anything with a spirit of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression reveals a country moving ... towards peace and dialogue," he said. It was the kind of remark which - just at the moment - Mr Khatami really does not need.