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Iran's students pressure Khatami to repay support

By Geneive Abdo
The Guardian Observer

TEHRAN, Iran, December 13, 1999 - The Iranian president, Mohammed Khatami, addressed thousands of university students yesterday for the first time since the violent campus demonstrations in July, but he deliberately stopped short of publicly supporting their central demands.

The first signs of a gap between Mr Khatami and the students' demands were clear. When the students cried out for him to intervene to free Abdollah Nouri, Iran's leading reformist imprisoned for five years November 27 for religious and political dissent, the president evaded their pleas. When the youngsters repeatedly called out for action against Islamic extremists and police who beat their peers while they slept in their dormitories July 8-9, Mr Khatami offered mostly cautious words.

He said he was "personally dissatisfied with the initial outcome of the investigation and expected a speedy and careful investigation into the case". He also said: "The attack on the Tehran dormitories is a shame which can't be washed away easily."

Several students died and scores were injured in the attacks and during the next six days when pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in Tehran. Demonstrators also erupted in other major Iranian cities, including Tabriz, where students were brutally beaten.

The protests were the most dramatic since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The president also implied during the two-hour session with students that Iran's imperfections stemmed from its immaturity; the republic was born out of a revolution that occurred only 20 years ago.

The rally, held at Tehran's university of science and technology, Elm-o-Sanat, provided further evidence that Mr Khatami's supporters are moving faster than the pace of his reform programme.

Many of the changes the students demanded would require reform within the judiciary and law enforcement institutions, which are still in the hands of the hardliners and outside the president's control.

While Mr Khatami has certainly eased the hard hand of law enforcement, making it possible for university students to sit together as boyfriend and girlfriend in public places, he has yet to cleanse institutions like the Special Court for Clergy, which sentenced Mr Nouri.

"The Special Court for Clergy must be disbanded," the students chanted. But Mr Khatami failed to answer the issue directly.

"Throughout our history and even today, many try to justify oppression under the guise of religion," he said. "Our people still have the experience of living with freedom. There are many who cannot tolerate freedom."

Despite his vague responses, the students repeatedly shouted their love for the president and enthusiastically waved his photograph high in the air.

Mr Khatami's most decisive remarks came when he blamed the United States for its "incorrect" policy towards Iran. "When we say a high wall of mistrust exists between Iran and the United States, this is not just a slogan," he said. "Is it not correct for the Iranian nation to blame all the damage and humiliation it has faced in [the years since the revolution] on incorrect US policy?" But the students' youthful optimism may yet prove to have its limits. Iran's student movement, which Mr Khatami described yesterday as "a rising star in the dead of night", has high expectations. Soon they will make demands of the president they worked so hard to elect in May 1997.

Mr Khatami won the active support of the Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, an umbrella organisation representing tens of thousands of students across the country, when he first promised on December 28 1996 to create a society based on the "rule of law".

That day, Mr Khatami pulled out of his pocket a small copy of the constitution to show his commitment to bringing about justice.

Now, three years on, the president clearly must deliver more than words.