Iran Hard-liners Face Decision on Academic's Fate

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's hardline establishment on Thursday faced a choice between executing a popular dissident academic or giving in to public outrage following the largest pro-reform protests for more than three years.

Students called a brief halt to their five-day-old demonstrations on Thursday, but more rallies and class boycotts were planned in coming days in support of Hashem Aghajari, a reformist lecturer sentenced last week to hang for blasphemy.

Aghajari, who angered conservatives by questioning their dearly-held belief in a marriage between religion and state, upped the pressure on hard-liners on Wednesday by refusing to appeal the verdict.

"They (conservatives) are in a no-win situation. If they execute him, he will become a martyr and it could prove a catalyst for public unrest," said Ali Ansari, lecturer in Middle East history at Durham University, England.

"If they don't execute him, which is the most likely option, they open themselves up for question on a whole range of issues. Either way, this could be a pivotal moment."

Aghajari's case has revitalized Iran's struggling reformist movement at a time when pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami is engaged in a high stakes legal struggle to curb the power of hard-liners entrenched in the judiciary and key unelected bodies.

Close allies are urging the normally conciliatory president to make good on his threats to resign if, as expected, conservatives block two proposed bills to limit the power of the judiciary and curb a conservative-controlled watchdog's right to vet election candidates.


"The Aghajari case is, in a sense, a dry run for the real battle over the bills," said one Western diplomat. "Everyone knows the significance of this legislation and both sides are stating their intentions very clearly."

Students who have gathered in their thousands in universities across the country this week, have used Aghajari's case as a platform to press for greater political freedoms and genuine reform of the Islamic Republic's political system.

"Long live political prisoners, death to their jailers," they chanted at a rally in Tehran on Wednesday.

But while still broadly supportive of Khatami, who was elected in 1997 and 2001 with landslide wins, the students' loudest chants have often been for his resignation, as they vent their frustration at his inability to deliver.

"We never considered Khatami as the leader of reforms. He was like a catalyst and he prevented the collapse of the system," said Hadi Kahalzadeh, one of the student leaders.

"We believe he has done his duty, but he doesn't have the popularity he had before."

Analyst Ansari agreed: "The protests have given Khatami some political muscle on the ground, but those who are protesting are already looking beyond Khatami, they're not protesting for him."

The demonstrations are the largest sustained political protests in Iran since a similar wave of rallies were brutally suppressed in 1999, a precedent many fear could be repeated.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday warned he could unleash "popular forces" -- generally assumed to mean the ideologically-driven Basij militia -- if reformers and conservatives fail to reach agreement.

"The tension is rising now in each camp. A lot of conservatives are unhappy because they know that if the protests continue it would cause them problems and if they step back it will encourage the students even more," said local political analyst Mohsen Malekzadeh.

The domestic drama is taking place alongside the possibility of war in neighboring Iraq with which Iran shares the status of "axis of evil" member in Washington's eyes.