The Financial Times
By Guy Dinmore in Tehran
February 14 2001 20:00GMT
Hardline clerics and students have taken to the streets of Qom, Iran's holiest Shia Muslim city. Unusually, however, the protests were directed not at reformist opponents but at prominent figures within their own camp heading a breakaway conservative movement.
The new fault lines within Iran's factional struggle could lead eventually to the emergence of a more stable centrist coalition around Mohammad Khatami, the pro-reform president. But in the short term, analysts say, a hardline backlash that began nearly a year ago could worsen.
One senior conservative, who asked not to be named, said the rift among clerics, in simplified terms, was between those who believed in a religious democracy and those who wanted a totalitarian theocracy.
After evening prayers on Tuesday, a crowd of clerics and seminarians, variously reported by Iranian media to number between 700 and 2,000, gathered at Qom's main Feyziyeh seminary.
Chanting slogans and marching to the Qom Seminary Propaganda Organisation, they demanded that the judiciary close Entekhab, a conservative newspaper at the centre of the movement known as "new religious thinking". A speaker denounced what he called the "domestic Salman Rushdies", in reference to
the British author condemned to death for blasphemy in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late leader of the Islamic revolution.
Mohammad Mehdi Faqihi, the chief editor of Entekhab, had unleashed the controversy in an interview published on Monday, promoting "new religious thinking" and attacking "reactionary Islam", which he described as a threat to the Islamic state.
Mr Faqihi said the new current would put forward a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for June 8. His surprise attack, without naming names, was clearly aimed at Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a powerful ideologue of the far right closely affiliated to hardline judges.
The judiciary has been the main instrument of repression of reformists since the conservatives were heavily defeated in parliamentary elections a year ago. Dozens of activists have been jailed or hauled before the courts. About 30 publications have been closed. In Qom, demonstrators defended Mr Mesbah-Yazdi and, according to a report by Entekhab, chanted "Faqihi. Shame on you" and "Death to liberals".
The first signs of a serious rift within the conservative coalition appeared at the end of last year when Taha Hashemi, Entekhab's managing editor, attacked the Islamic Coalition Association of powerful conservative merchants as out of touch. Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Hashemi said his views were based on the premise that an Islamic system, through a process of gradual reforms, was compatible with a modern state, with the people in the most important role.
Mr Hashemi, a cleric, said he would support Mr Khatami if he chose to run for a second term in June. He also hinted at possible differences between the judiciary and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader closely associated with the conservatives. "It is possible that the judiciary makes its decisions independently and maybe those decisions are not approved by the leader," Mr Hashemi said.
Among the conservative newspapers, Entekhab is seen as closest to the supreme leader. "We have always tried to recognise his views and move in the same direction," Mr Hashemi explained.
Analysts say that once again the president and the supreme leader may be drawn together to protect the Islamic system from the twin threats of secularists and fundamentalists. Their political cohabitation was damaged last year when Ayatollah Khamenei blocked the reform-dominated parliament from changing a repressive media law.