Moderates, conservatives are at odds in Iran President struggles for more open society

May 24, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TEHRAN, Iran -- A year after an election that changed the face of Iranian politics, students and other Iranians gathered by the thousands yesterday to celebrate the openness instilled by President Mohammad Khatami.

But the anniversary rally came against a backdrop of sharpening tensions between moderate Iranians who reveled in the memory of Khatami's overwhelming victory and conservatives who view his popularity as a threat to their longtime grip on power.

Along with Iran's supreme leader, the more conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khatami has tried to calm that strained situation in recent weeks. But his caution has frustrated some supporters, who had hoped he would prove more willing to confront rival factions.

And so while the gathering yesterday at Tehran University was generally buoyant, it reflected consciousness of a divide in Iranian society. Some fear that the country is moving too quickly from the restrictive spirit of the Islamic revolution of 1979; others believe it is not moving fast enough.

"We believe that Mr. Khatami needs to do more," said Majid Farahani, 25, a student leader, "and the only way to do that is to be more honest with the people about the obstacles he is facing."

Khatami stayed away from an earlier demonstration in which students urged stronger efforts toward liberty.

Among recent signs of tension has been a warning reportedly issued by the chief of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country's most powerful military force.

The general, Rahim Safivi, has been quoted as telling fellow military leaders that the course adopted by the government poses a threat to national security and that the military should act "to uproot the counterrevolution wherever they are."

Tehran-based diplomats and Iranian analysts say those remarks betray the unease that has continued to reverberate within Iran since Khatami's victory on May 23, 1997 -- even though he won 70 percent of the vote against a candidate supported by the ruling religious establishment.

In recent days, conservative groups mobilized to counter the preparations for yesterday's celebration by trying to focus on another anniversary. Today also marks the day 16 years ago when Iran won perhaps its biggest victory in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

Since he assumed power in August, Khatami, 54, has eased press restrictions, creating a climate of freer political expression than at any time in at least 15 years.

Even Khamenei, 58, the remote figure who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 as supreme leader, has begun to emulate Khatami's more populist approach. He once arrived unannounced at a meeting of students to engage in a discussion later broadcast on television.

But in real terms, Khatami's influence remains limited. The government's most important powers, including the military and security forces, are still in the hands of Khamenei, who is regarded under the constitution of the Islamic republic as God's representative on Earth.

Other powers are jealously guarded by the legislature and the judiciary, which like Khamenei's office remain very much under conservative control.

Khatami, a more moderate cleric, has kept a low profile when disagreements have turned contentious. At the beginning of the year, he used a television interview to urge breaking down the "wall of mistrust" between the United States and Iran. But he has not repeated that, apparently mindful that it generated complaints.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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