TEHRAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iranian hard-liners clashed with pro-reform students at a demonstration on Monday, the first serious outbreak of violence in 10 days of university protests against a dissident's death sentence.
The student rallies and strikes in support of history lecturer Hashem Aghajari, condemned to hang for blasphemy, have raised political tension at a crucial stage in the power struggle between Iran's reformists and hard-liners.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday ordered a review of Aghajari's case in an apparent effort to defuse the row. Analysts said Khamenei's intervention revealed how concerned the leadership had been about the student protests.
Some student leaders responded to Khamenei's move by ordering an end to the protests. But others upped their demands to include an apology from Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi.
"We will continue to protest till Shahroudi officially apologizes and there is a guarantee no one will be jailed because of what they say," student leader Saeed Razavi Faqih told Reuters.
It was not clear which call the student rank-and-file would heed, but at least one more rally was scheduled for Tuesday.
Witnesses said fighting broke out when a group of around 300 Islamic vigilantes entered a hall at a Tehran university, the center of a demonstration by some 3,000 reformist students.
Earlier, riot police sealed the area and parked buses around the campus to obscure the view from outside.
Students later emerged, some with blood on their faces, triumphantly punching the air and chanting "referendum, referendum" in a call for a national vote on the political future of the Islamic Republic.
Police stood back letting the students disperse, but riot police clad in body armor mounted on motorbikes waited on stand-by in side streets.
The almost daily meetings at universities in the capital and across the country have been the biggest pro-reform protests in Iran since police and hardline vigilantes put down violent Tehran student unrest in the summer of 1999.
Khamenei's intervention was an apparent setback for the hardline judiciary's four-year legal onslaught against leading reformers, liberal intellectuals and the pro-reform press.
The reformists, allied to President Mohammad Khatami, enjoy popular support and dominate parliament, but have run into stiff resistance from conservatives, who control the judiciary and other key state bodies and oppose change to the Islamic system.
Reformers accuse hard-liners of trying to spark clashes with the students as a pretext for a big crackdown in which dozens of top reformers could face arrest.
Khamenei, though he appointed many conservatives to powerful positions, has stepped into the political fray on a number of occasions to hold back the feuding factions.
A conservative newspaper, seen as close to Khamenei, said the review would probably lead to Aghajari's sentence of 74 lashes, eight years jail and then execution being overturned.
But his guilty verdict for questioning clerical rule in Iran may still stand and some form of punishment can be expected.
Frustrated by five years of almost constant battle with hard-liners, Khatami has presented two bills to parliament in a last-ditch attempt to curb the power of the judiciary and the veto-wielding Guardian Council.
Khatami's allies have called on the mild-mannered cleric to make good on his threat to resign if, as expected, the Guardian Council blocks the bills.