Will Iran's Students Spark a Backlash?

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Itís been 20 years since Tehranís streets last saw masses of pro-democracy students chanting "Death to dictatorship." But Mondayís clashes between riot police and 10,000 demonstrators carries the danger of repeating an episode of Chinese, rather than Iranian, history ó the brutal clearing of Tiananmen Square 10 years ago. Demonstrations against a crackdown on liberal newspapers began last week, but they escalated after an attack by police and hard-line militants on Thursday night killed one student and injured four. The latest clashes come amid a fierce battle for Iranís future that pits reformers led by President Mohamed Khatami against Iran's conservative clergy, led by Ayatollah Ali Khameini, which retains ultimate power over the country's government and electoral system. President Khatami, who was elected in 1997 in a landslide denunciation by voters of the conservative clergy, supports the demonstrators but has urged them to avoid provocation. And with good reason: Thursdayís attack may signal the willingness of conservative elements to turn democracy protests into a security crisis.

With the two camps squaring off for what may be a decisive parliamentary election next year, hard-liners may be tempted to provoke chaos in order to scare voters away from reform, or to justify a further tightening of authoritarian social control. "Provoking confrontation could cut the ground out from under Khatami," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "But itís a risky course, because it could eventually leave the hard-liners facing a unified rebellion from the population." Mondayís protests went ahead despite an order by Tehranís National Security Council forbidding demonstrations without official permission. And as much as Khatami can see the danger of pursuing a direct confrontation with the security establishment, he may not be able to rein in a student body that is beginning to discover its collective power. And if the students opt for an early showdown with the hard-liners, Khatami could find himself among its victims.