Iran's old guard brings revolution upon itself

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A REVOLUTION within the revolution. Looking back, we might have seen it coming.

The overwhelming democratic vote for the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami two years ago and then the repression, the closing of newspapers, the trial of Tehran's mayor, the murder of intellectuals, the repeated flouting by the old parliament of Mr Khatami's call for a "civil society", for a place without fear.

And it is a sign of the arrogance of the old guard - the bazaaris and the mullahs and those who clustered around the Supreme Leader - that they never guessed that an attack on the students of Tehran would ignite the flame.

With a few exceptions, it is the students who now find themselves amid the flames. It was the students who were attacked by police on the Tehran campus, the students who marched in the street crying for "an end to despotism" - how like the revolution of 1979 - and the students whose power forced the arrest of the senior policemen who assaulted them. It was students, too, who appeared on the streets of Tehran again yesterday, ignoring even their President's appeals for calm as they came under tear- gas attack from the police.

And those very men who had achieved such total theocratic power on the shoulders of Khomeini's students, who had wrested Iran from the most powerful dictator in the Middle East with students' blood, who had encouraged the "students of the Imam" to clamber over the walls of the American and British embassies 20 years ago, forgot the very source of their own street power. Until,that is, the interior ministry police and their vigilante allies decided to teach Tehran University undergraduates a lesson last week - the students had been protesting at the closure of another pro- Khatami newspaper, Salam - and found themselves facing a revolt.

It all fitted into a familiar history. In January, 1962, the Shah had sent his police into Tehran university, viciously assaulting male and female students and prompting the chancellor to resign with the angry accusation that "when we inspected the university buildings we were faced with the same situation as if an army of barbarians had invaded an enemy territory". And last week, the police of the Islamic republic moved into the same university - just 37 years later - prompting the resignation of the university president and the minister of higher education amid identical scenes of brutality. Yesterday, tear gas was still drifting through the student dormitories.

To generalise about the causes of the student revolt is easy. Frustration and economic misfortune, a gathering fury at the intolerance of the old and uneducated men who chose to shut off the freedoms they had been promised, a conviction that they were being cheated of the democracy they had voted for. But it is equally easy to be taken in by the cliches of the West: that this is a struggle between "doves and hawks", between "hardliners and moderates" and all the other characters from satellite television's central casting.

The reality is that the structure of the Islamic Republic set up by Ayatollah Khomeini was deeply flawed. By creating both an elected president and an unelected Supreme Leader, Iran would inevitably fail to function as a nation-state.

As long as the president tolerated a theocracy - or, given the Shia Muslim fascination with death, a necrocracy - and as long as the guidance of the Supreme Leader went as unquestioned as a medieval pope, Iran could hold together. But the moment a president - in this case Mr Khatami - demanded the rule of civil law before the law of religion, he would come into conflict withthe theological regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And so, what emerged after the May 1997 elections was inevitable: the unelected regime of Mr Khamenei became the government and the elected government of Mr Khatami became the opposition. In retrospect, it is extraordinary - and a mark of Mr Khatami's peaceful intentions - that it took two years for this contradiction to explode into violence.

And the regime's power - the very theological edifice that demanded the obedience of every Iranian in Imam Khomeini's name - has now begun to crumble. The students demanded - unspeakable heresy - "explanations" from the Supreme Leader who had never had to explain himself. Mr Khamenei tried to explain himself and condemned the security forces. The two police chiefs were forced to resign. There would be compensation for those arrested and a full inquiry into the deaths of two students - a Khatami man in Tehran and a Khamenei man in Tabriz - and a harsh condemnation from President Khatami of the interior ministry police and their Ansar e-Hizballah vigilante friends who stormed into the university dormitories.

And last night, there were signs that the erring security police would at last be transferred from the control of Mr Khamenei to the Khatami- run interior ministry - a sure sign that the elected government might be taking power from the unelected regime. That the conservatives in parliament have still not understood this is inevitable. Guardians of the sacred memory of Khomeini, they would not - could not - accept any criticism. When Salam published documents purporting to prove that an Iranian secret service agent was not only guilty of political assassination but of instigating anti-press laws, they rushed to shut it down. And the students of Tehran objected.

"They were peaceful and no one expected this response from the authorities," a Tehran businessman said yesterday after prowling through the ruins of one university block. "But the police made a big mistake - to attack students like this and at night! Both the president and the guide [Supreme Leader] were obliged to say `we support the students'. But it is positive for Mr Khatami. It has made our President very strong."

It has certainly weakened Mr Khamenei. The Supreme Leader, speaking to 10,000 demonstrating students in Tehran, was met with shouts of derision from the crowd who yelled: "Either Islam and the law - or another revolution".

"This bitter incident," Mr Khamenei said of the police attack, "hurt my heart." The students could scarcely hear him.