Khatami had urged the students to curb their demonstrations as they became increasingly violent, but is now forced to sit out the backlash as police and Islamic fundamentalist militias move to snuff out the largest protest movement seen in Iran since the revolution. Although he risks alienating some of his most committed supporters by backing away from the protesters who carried his portrait through the streets, Khatami knows from experience that conservative crackdowns tend to drive the broader Iranian public toward the reformist agenda. And with parliamentary elections looming next May, a conservative backlash may work in his favor in the long term. Besides, his only alternative may have been political martyrdom.
President Khatami is in a bind. Two days day after Iran’s moderate president warned that further democracy protests would not be tolerated, the streets of Tehran are firmly in the hands of militia bands sent by Iran's conservative clerical leaders to crush the pro-democracy protest movement, while pro-Khatami student activists run for their lives. The spectacle of Khatami denouncing the students who’d launched their protest to defend his own reforms from conservative attack captures the dilemma of a man trying to change Iran’s theocracy from within. "Khatami was caught between contending forces, and had to avoid alienating any of them and show his loyalty to the system while at the same time trying to change it," says TIME correspondent William Dowell, who covered the 1979 revolution from Tehran. "He couldn't afford to allow the conservatives to paint him as an enemy of the revolution. But he's going to find himself under immense pressure as the conservatives mount what may be a very violent backlash."