- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2002

TEHRAN U.S. plans to topple Saddam Hussein's government in neighboring Iraq have riled Iran's fractious, strife-ridden government just as tensions between hard-liners and reformists have reached a boiling point.
Thousands of Iranian students ignored official warnings and demonstrated for a fourth day yesterday against a dissident's death sentence and to demand freedom of speech and political reform, according to Reuters news agency.
Some 5,000 students gathered at Tehran University, once the hotbed of revolutionary fervor that overthrew the shah two decades ago, in support of scholar Hashem Aghajari, sentenced to death for questioning clerical rule in the Islamic republic.
"The execution of Aghajari is the execution of the university," demonstrators chanted. "Political prisoners should be freed."
The momentum of protests appeared to be growing, with bigger crowds in Tehran each day and demonstrations spreading to the provincial cities of Tabriz, Isfahan, Urumiyeh and Hamedan, Reuters reported.
The protests come amid rising political tension in this country of 65 million people as moderate President Mohammad Khatami tries to assert his authority over hard-line rivals who control the judiciary, armed forces, broadcast media and have a veto over laws passed in parliament.
After their rally in Tehran, students marched through the vast university campus, holding hands and singing "Ey Iran," a popular nationalist song that predates the 1979 Islamic revolution.
When they reached the locked university gates, some tried to force them open and shouted at police and passersby on the other side. "Nation, shame on you for your silence. We don't want spectators, join us."
Though the death sentence against Mr. Aghajari sparked the latest protests, the U.S. threats of military action against Saddam have kept both reformists and hard-liners on edge for weeks.
Saddam is widely despised in Iran for the 1980-88 war; both hard-liners and reformists would like to see him gone.
"Some members of parliament have referred to U.S. actions as a pretext for pushing for more reasonable foreign policies," said Goudarz Eghtedari, a professor at Oregon's Portland State University.
"Meanwhile hard-liners, such as high-ranking officers of the Revolutionary Guard, have attempted to use the threat of America to get reformers to lay down their political demands and join hard-liners," he said.
For Iran, a member of President Bush's "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, U.S. dominance in the region represents a long-term threat, said Mohammad Hadi Semati, a political science professor at the University of Tehran.
"Undeniably there is now pressure on Iran," Mr. Semati said. "The perceived threat is that the U.S. is basically leading this war not because of the threat of Saddam Hussein, but to have a strong foothold here to recreate and socially re-engineer the region."
From Tehran's point of view, America is circling Iran. To the east are the pro-U.S. governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to the north, Turkey to the west and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar all play host to U.S. military bases.
"The ruling ayatollahs are afraid of having the U.S. in place on both major borders in Afghanistan and in Iraq. They would be surrounded," said Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan. "They have reason to be afraid that they are next on President Bush's hit list."

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