"Iran’s students are the children of the technocratic elite who keep the country running," says TIME correspondent William Dowell, who covered the 1979 revolution from Tehran. "Attacking them could deepen the crisis and even unite the population against Khameini. And if the protest movement expands, it can’t be assumed that the military would necessarily remain loyal to Khameini, in which case you could potentially see another revolution." For Khameini and Khatami, both veterans of the movement that overthrew the shah 20 years ago, the rapid spread of the protest movement from Tehran to at least 12 other Iranian towns and cities in recent days is a worrying sign — the children of the revolution are starting to do as their parents did rather than as they say.
Smart tyrants know they’re in trouble when tens of thousands of unarmed demonstrators suddenly lose their fear of the security forces. And when 10,000 students fought a sixth day of pitched battles against riot police in Tehran Tuesday despite dire warnings against demonstrating, Iran’s leaders – who themselves made a revolution 20 years ago – may be feeling history catching up with them. The student protesters are targeting the country’s hard-line religious leadership under Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme ruler who also controls the security forces. Although many of the demonstrators are carrying portraits of President Mohamed Khatami, whose efforts at reform and democratization are being blocked by the hard-liners, they won’t necessarily abide by his call for calm to avoid provoking a crackdown by conservatives. For Khatami and the reformers, the protest movement is a tremendous vindication, but if it spins out of control they could be dragged down by the backlash.