By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

TEHRAN, Iran – Bloody confrontations between freedom-seeking student protesters and hard-line vigilantes rocking the Islamic Republic this past week likely have delivered a fatal blow to the once wildly popular political and social reform movement of President Mohammed Khatami.

Disillusioned young Iranians who used to cling to Khatami’s vision of an Islamic democracy achieved by peaceful means are now calling for his resignation, chanting his name along with those of the right-wing clerical rulers they seek to depose. Khatami, on the other hand, whose picture students once pasted to their clothes and cars, has remained silent on the protests that began Tuesday and evolved into the largest show of civil disobedience in the Islamic Republic in four years.

“It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t spoken because he’s a marionette” for hard liners looking to preserve authoritarian Islamic rule, said Omid, 18, one of the protesters, who asked that his full name not be used. “Reforms are dead, really, because he’s made them marginal through inaction.”

Many Iranians who still back Khatami also complain that he hasn’t done enough to move reform along since being swept into office twice by an overwhelming majority – first in 1997 and again in 2001. Voters hoped the president would use his popularity to exert pressure on the high-ranking clerics headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who hold veto power over the elected government. But Khatami proved ineffective at removing roadblocks to social and political reform thrown up by the right wing, non-elected rulers.

Particularly disturbing, say some of his former supporters, was Khatami’s failure to ensure state-sponsored assassins arrested in early 1999 for murdering five prominent opposition figures were brought to justice. He also failed to fight the judiciary’s closing of more than 90 reformist newspapers and magazines in recent years.

The beleaguered president’s cabinet members insist Khatami never pledged to reform the Islamic Republic through pressure or force. People’s expectations were simply too high, they add.

“If people would be more realistic, then they’d understand President Khatami cannot do more than this, and that he has not breached their trust,” said one of his vice-presidents, Mohammad Ali Abtahi.

Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh agreed. “We said from the first day, we were not looking for a revolution. We were looking for a peaceful movement.”

Even before the recent protests, the Khatami-led reform agenda was on life-support as the non-elected Guardian Council – bolstered by pro-reform voter apathy in recent municipal elections – quashed two key bills that would have curtailed hard-liners’ power. One of the bills would have given Khatami veto power over the judiciary and the other would have ended the Guardian Council’s power to vet candidates for public office.

Khatami last fall threatened to resign in protest if the bills were not passed.

Disillusioned reformist clerics, politicians and intellectuals have one-by-one broken with their mentor, rejecting his vision for change without revamping the constitution or system of Velayat e Faqih – “Rule of the Islamic jurist,” in which ultimate governmental authority rests in the hands of an non-elected supreme leader.

“You won’t find these kind of (new) reformers in the street demonstrating,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric and former Khatami advisor who was jailed for his outspoken views on democratization. “This kind of reform takes time.”

Time is something the protesters appear unwilling to give in a country where 70 percent of the population is younger than 30 and that is plagued by inflation, double-digit unemployment and strict laws that limit social expression. Other than calling for the freeing of political prisoners and the resignation of Khatami, the protesters are vague about what changes they seek.

That plays into the hands of the hard liners, who reformers warn might loosen a few social taboos to placate the masses while keeping power tightly in their grasp. Already there are signs of this loosening. According to Sunday’s English-language Iran Daily, foreign movies – including the U.S.-produced “The Thirteenth Warrior” starring Antonio Banderas – are now being screened at major cinemas in the capital. Formerly, they were forbidden under Iranian law.

Bush Administration statements in support of the protesters and Iranian expatriate broadcasts beamed via satellite from Los Angeles that incited students to take to the streets also have given Khamenei and other hard liners justification to dismiss demonstrators as foreign agents, reformers say.

“That which is happening in the streets and around the university is more a confrontation between pressure groups like Ansar Hezbollah (vigilantes loyal to Khamenei) and a segment of people and students, than a forum for change,” Kadivar said.

“This unhappiness needs a legal channel through which it can be expressed, but there isn’t one because the conservatives have blocked all those ways,” he added.

The demonstrations spread on a smaller scale to other Iranian cities over the weekend, including Isfahan and Shiraz, although the Tehran protests appear to be dying down under a harsh crackdown by police and plainclothes security forces.

The main highways around the university dormitory complex where the demonstrations were concentrated were calmer over the past two nights. Riot police and hard-line militia members who were bused in to preserve order. They vastly outnumbered would-be protesters, who mostly limited their activities to setting garbage ablaze on side streets.

Iranian officials say they’ve arrested at least 80 people in the clashes and state-run television announced that arrest warrants also were issued for those vigilantes who attacked students. According to unofficial reports, scores of students also have been injured, some of them critically.