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Iran power struggle ignites new round of flag burning

Hard-liners assert authority with anti-US acts. But their recent

Flag burning in Iran had become a fading art form in recent years, the chants of "Death to America" less strident as moderates began to assert themselves across Iran's turbulent political landscape.

But as hard-liners feel their hold on power slip, they are fighting back - and are leaving a fresh trail of ash from torched American and Israeli flags behind them. These icons are reemerging, this time as important indicators of the political battle between hard-liners and moderates here.

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For example, at a Tehran rally last month marking the anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy, militants climbed on scaffolding above the crowd of several thousand to pour gas on one huge flag after another. They set them alight with Bic lighters to a chorus of chanting.

Moderate President Mohamad Khatami, who on the promise of reform was elected in a landslide victory 2-1/2 years ago, has criticized such acts. And the morning of the Tehran rally, local radio announced that there would be no flag burning. Yet even so, more homemade American flags went up in flames then than at any other event in several years.

"It shows the conservatives are losing public support, and so they put fuel on the fire of America," says Ibrahim Yazdi, head of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran in Tehran. "The issue is not America. They do it only to legitimize their own power."

Conservatives and moderates are battling for popular influence before crucial parliamentary elections next February that will decide if hard-liners keep their majority. Conservatives have pulled out all stops to ensure victory, and their recent conviction and imprisonment of reformist Abdollah Nouri for insulting Islam is widely seen as a way to marginalize the most popular politician in Iran today.

Mr. Nouri, who is an editor, former minister, and close associate of Mr. Khatami, gained more votes than any other candidate in municipal elections earlier this year. He planned to run for the parliament and was expected to be its speaker.

The verdict means that Nouri can't contest a seat, but the strategy of conservatives is now seen to have backfired.

Hundreds of students staged a peaceful demonstration in Tehran on Sunday, taping their lips to show how Nouri's reformist message - and indeed that of half a dozen liberal newspapers and their editors that have been shut down so far - was being silenced by hard-line courts.

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Nouri's case has become a fresh rallying point for the students, who are still smarting after high-profile demonstrations and a crackdown in July left scores of militant students in jail and at least two dead. Several of those student leaders have been sentenced to death, and the moderate mainstream wing of the movement is now carefully watched.

"The students are asking: 'Why have all the militant students of 1979 backed down now, and support ties with the West, while all the conservatives - who didn't care at the time - today insist on war with the US?' " says Sadiq Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University. He is referring to the most vocal reformists today, who led the charge against the US Embassy two decades ago but have since changed their thinking.

"[The old students] are disenchanted with anti-US statements because they have grown up," Professor Zibakalam says, "and realized that there are things like a civil society, rule of law, human rights, and press freedom that are far more important than shouting 'Death to America.' "

Even at the flag-burning rally, voices in the crowd underscored the inconsistencies in political thinking - and how the anti-US rhetoric rings hollow for some.

"Down with the Great Stain!" chanted one man with forced enthusiasm, mispronouncing the common slogan that characterizes America as the "Great Satan."

"Oh America, my love!" shouted another young man with arms open, as police and militants watched aghast.

"It's a joke," says Yara, a photography student. "How can you shout 'Death to America' when you are wearing blue jeans?"

Khatami, in fact, has signaled that Iran is interested in opening a "cultural dialogue" with the West and the United States in particular, which officially considers Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. There have been exchanges of wrestling and other sports teams, and glimmers of interest from Washington, although President Clinton renewed US sanctions against Iran last month.

Hard-liners have harshly criticized Khatami for even suggesting such a dialogue.

Their arguments gained weight last Friday, when a group of senior Iranian clerics - invited for a religious seminar hosted by Georgetown University - were subjected to what many Iranians deem humiliating US immigration rules that require Iranian nationals to be photographed and fingerprinted.

The clerics pulled out of the seminar in protest, and Iran's state radio called it "inhuman and insulting treatment."

Still, the nature of Iran's attitude toward the West appears to have shifted over the years. "There has been a revision regarding Hostage-taking Day," says Emadedin Baghi, a liberal columnist for Nouri's Khordad newspaper, which was shut down by court order.

"The main foundation of the revolution was independence, freedom, and an Islamic republic," Mr. Baghi explains, "but we never meant to [permanently] say 'Down with America.' That was not the goal, just a means to show independence."

Emphasis on anti-Americanism, Baghi adds, shows that "the conservatives have left the roots of the revolution."

"We are losing a lot by carrying the anti-US banner," says Zibakalam, the professor. "The final decision is for the Iranian people. If a majority decides that we will eat bread and water to carry out an ideological war against the US, that's OK. But for heaven's sake, let us be aware of what this flag burning is costing us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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