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Iran's soccer fervor turns political and violent

After recent matches, supporters have transformed celebrations into political rallies against ruling clerics.

Security forces are bracing for more student clashes tonight, as Ireland threatens to scupper Iran's hopes to qualify for the World Cup.

Following a succession of recent soccer matches, hundreds of thousands of Iranian boys and girls have poured into streets across Iran, chanting "Zindibad azadi!" (Long live freedom), blaring banned Western pop music from car radios, and shouting in support of the exiled son of the shah, now emerging as the unlikely figurehead for the democratic desires of Iranian youth.

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"Reza Pahlavi is our spiritual leader," taunted boys in ponytails and girls with purple eyeliner, in a jibe at Iran's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as they fled Bassijis, the stave-wielding religious scouts, Oct. 21.

"They protest because they are godless," says Shafai, a Bassij commander, directing his militia by closed-circuit radio. "If we see something going wrong with our culture, we'll do what we have to do."

But while the authorities dismiss the unrest as soccer hooliganism, few doubt its anti-clerical underpinning.

"The failure to qualify for the World Cup was important to Iranians," says Bijan Khajapour, a political consultant in Tehran. "It symbolized Iran's failure to assume its deserved place on the world stage."

Verbal confrontations turned violent starting Oct. 21, after Iran lost 3-1 to Bahrain. Riot police bundled protesters into vans, and security forces fired tear gas to repel youths hurling stones, home-made explosives, and stun grenades, ripping through downtown Tehran. The authorities set up special courts to try more than a thousand detainees arrested following the torching of dozens of banks, police cars, and bus stops.

Analysts trace a shift in Iran since Sept. 11, as Iranians urge their leaders to ride a groundswell of sympathy for the victims and re-establish relations with the United States after 22 years of pariahdom. In a counterpoint to anti-US demonstrations by Muslims elsewhere in Asia and the Arab world, the soccer revelers chanted "We love America."

"In crisis, equations change. Iran and America can bring their positions closer," said Ibrahim Bisalami, a member of parliament close to President Mohammad Khatami and spokesman of the special parliamentary commission to review Iran's post-Sept. 11 policy. Shiite Iran and the US share a loathing of the Taliban's Sunni fanaticism, and have both backed the Northern Alliance.

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But hope has turned to frustration, as Ayatollah Khamenei publicly reprimanded Mr. Khatami and his fellow reformers earlier this month for countenancing any restructuring of the anti-American pillar of Iran's revolution. Bassijis - the youth wing of the Republican Guard - were dispatched to break up candlelit vigils for the Sept. 11 victims and roam the rooftops to confiscate satellite dishes. Pro-monarchy broadcasts are believed to have triggered the upsurge of support for Reza Pahlavi, the little-known son of the ousted Shah.

In an attempt to shore up his hard-line support, Khamenei went on a 10-day lecture tour to Isfahan - the historic city with a reputation for making and breaking revolutions - to denounce dialogue with the US as tantamount to apostasy.

"I am telling the enemies of this Revolution abroad and inside," he told pre-arranged rallies. "If you are hopeful, know that you are only having a bad dream." And in a swipe at soccer revelers, he accused those countering the goals of Imam Khomeini of "unpardonable treason."

Parliamentarians, including Mr. Bisalami, daring to broach the prospect of a US rapprochement faced censure by decree of the judiciary, the bastion of Khamenei's power. An unpublicized meeting of US congressmen and Iranian members of parliament in Cyprus was said to have been abruptly cancelled, as was the visit of an official delegation of scholars from Britain. And this week, 31 activists, including two former ministers, appeared in court, charged with counterrevolution, the largest political trial since 1979.

"Iran has its own Taliban," says Mohammed Sadiq al Hussein, advisor to the arch-reformist former culture minister, Ataollah Mohajerani. "They think everything is forbidden. In Islam everything is allowed."

Pressure is likely to mount tonight as the authorities decide whether to allow Irish female fans traveling to Iran for the soccer qualifier to enter the stadium. Iranian women, furious at a ban on girls over 9 watching male sports, will bitterly resent any dispensation for their Irish counterparts.

Hard-liners warn that the more freedom is granted, the more people take. But reformers argue that the crackdown will puncture popular support for the Islamic Revolution. Only last May, Khatami was reelected president with a mandate of over 70 percent, and many Iranians are proud of the country's unique experiment - combining Islamic governance with democracy.

Last week, following a game with the United Arab Emirates, a massive showing of riot police, special forces, and Bassijis was sufficient to deter further protests.

But despite the crackdown, popular pressure continues to extract concessions. Earlier this month, Mohammed Nouri - who, under the shah, was renowned as the Frank Sinatra of Iran - broke 22 years of silence to return to the stage. His songs, sung in English and Farsi, unleashed a wave of nostalgia.