Wednesday, July 14, 1999 Published at 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
World: Middle East
Analysis: Khatami at the crossroads
Scenes unprecedented for a generation
By Middle East Correspondent Jim Muir
Tehran had not witnessed such scenes since the early years of the Islamic revolution a generation ago.
The final repercussions and implications of the upheaval will take time to emerge.
But the immediate assessment has to be that the disturbances represent a serious setback - if not a disaster - for Iran's still hugely popular reformist President, Muhammad Khatami, and the civil society movement he heads.
Pressure for change
The storming of a university dormitory on the night of Thursday 8 July by riot police and right-wing vigilantes - probably from the ultra hard-line Ansar Hizbollah faction - caused an almost universal outcry.
Spontaneous student protests at the destruction, casualties and detentions resulting from the dormitory raid gave the moderate camp another cause celebre with which to press for change.
Student leaders not only demanded the dismissal of the country's hard-line police chief, General Hedayat Lutfian, but also insisted that control of the law enforcement forces should be transferred to the Interior Ministry.
That would bring them under the direct control of President Khatami's reformist government.
At present, the strings are pulled by the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is usually identified with the right-wing conservative camp in Iran's clerical politics.
Such was the strength of outrage over the dormitory incident that even Ayatollah Khamenei was obliged to deplore it and support decisions of the Supreme National Security Council - headed by Mr Khatami - to investigate and punish those involved.
The council announced that two senior police officers were being dismissed and prosecuted, and that the "pressure groups" - right-wing vigilantes - would be firmly curbed.
The crisis seemed destined to yield major benefits for President Khatami and the reformists.
But when riots ended up spilling into the streets, without the support of the mainly pro-Khatami student leaderships, the situation turned around dramatically.
Licence to act
The same combination of riot police, plainclothes security men and right-wing vigilantes who had been condemned for the dormitory raid, suddenly found themselves with a licence to wade in against the rioters on the streets.
The identity of those involved was also obscure - most student leaders distanced themselves from it - thus enabling the unrest to be labeled as the work of foreign-inspired provocateurs and counter-revolutionaries.
Just as Ayatollah Khamenei had been obliged to condemn the dormitory incident, President Khatami had no choice but to denounce the riots, which caused the city's bazaar to pull down its shutters for the first time since the disturbances began. "They (the riots) were against the interest of the nation, and against the policies of the government. This event is just the opposite of the political development advocated by the government."
Ayatollah Khamenei announced that ''officials in the government, especially those in charge of public security, have been emphatically instructed to put down the corrupt and warring elements with insight and power and, no doubt, those who have invested hope in the mischievous acts of these disgraced elements will be disappointed.
"My basiji children in particular should maintain their full alertness and through their presence everywhere they are needed, terrify and crush the wicked enemies."
The Basij are irregular volunteers attached to the Revolutionary Guards as guardians of the revolution.
There are other reasons why the riots played strongly to Mr Khatami's disadvantage:
However, 20 million Iranians voted for him in 1997 hoping for peaceful change.
They have now been given a glimpse of the chaos which is the only visible alternative to the Islamic regime.