Tehran's Conservatives Blink

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TEHRAN: Iran's moderates and conservatives may be at each other's throats, but neither side is ready to fight it out in the street. A day after violently suppressing a demonstration by 4,000 students, the country's conservative leadership sought to defuse a mounting crisis by releasing Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi on bail. "The arrest of Karbaschi, a key moderate, was a direct challenge to the authority of President Khatami," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod. "But the public backlash caught the conservatives off guard."

But even Khatami wanted the situation cooled down, notes MacLeod. "The moderates know they'd lose any direct confrontation with the conservatives, who control the police and military. Yesterday's pro-Karbaschi demonstration went ahead even though Khatami urged its cancellation. He wants to move slowly, building public support to outflank the conservatives in the 2000 legislative elections." Still, with Karbaschi's trial scheduled to start in two weeks, the conservative offensive isn't over yet.