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In Iran, a challenge to hardliners

Students Wednesday held a fifth day of protests against the power of fundamentalist ayatollahs.

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Amid drum-tight political tension in Iran, demonstrating students Wednesday mounted their boldest challenge yet to the hard-line clergy's grip on power during a fifth straight day of protest.

But while the students' words grew tougher yesterday, their turnout grew thinner.

Student leaders called for a division between mosque and state, and more accountable clerical rule - demands considered to be heresy in some quarters here.

The protests are the most significant student action since 1999, when large street demonstrations erupted over the closure of a reform newspaper and were violently put down by proregime vigilantes.

Violence could be touched off again, some analysts warn, if the student actions spark broader unrest - or if hardline elements that control the security services decide to crack down.

"The clerics who are not hard-line have to come forward, and not let the demands of the people be sacrificed to fascist interpretations of religion," declared Mehdi Habibi, head of the local Islamic student union. "The real democracy that we are talking about depends on the demands of the people, the vote of the people. Any other form is not acceptable. Religious democracy is in contradiction to real democracy."

Using a death sentence passed on a reformist professor as a focal point, the students are tapping into deepening frustration with the slow pace of change promised by President Mohammad Khatami, whose popular mandate has been thwarted by unelected conservatives. In his first statement on the issue, Mr. Khatami said yesterday that the verdict "never should have been issued" and warned: "Under the current circumstances, no measures should be taken that promote tension."

Though barely more than 1,000 students turned out at Amir Kabir University - far fewer than the thousands that marched on campuses earlier in the week - the bold words from the podium brought cheers. Policemen bolstered their numbers on city blocks around the campus, a known political hotbed that produced the radical students who seized the US Embassy during the 1979 Islamic revolution.

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