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Increased Violence Forces Iran’s President To Slow Nation’s Reform

By Robin Wright

President Mohammad Khatami warned Thursday that growing polarization over the direction of Iran’s post-revolutionary society may trigger new confrontations and violence and has already forced his government to slow the pace of change.

In a sobering assessment of Iran’s internal strife, Khatami pledged that he still stands for sweeping reforms in the world’s only modern theocracy. But he warned that public demands for change “should not rise beyond what is possible.”

“The people have a certain understanding of their rights, which may be more than the government can offer right now,” he said, with exceptional candor, to a small group of reporters at the U.N. Millennium Summit.

In a message that will echo back home, he also cautioned that reformers “have to be careful not to lose what we have achieved” so far.

Because of serious differences between rival camps, Iran’s leadership cannot leave society “in a state that is vulnerable to various forces that endanger peace and security,” he added at a later news conference.

The charismatic Iranian leader, whose upset election three years ago led to widespread expectations of political and social openings, even indicated that he may be only a transition figure as the strategic and oil-rich country struggles to move from a revolutionary society toward a new form of Islamic democracy.

It has been an escalating battle to achieve those reforms. Over the past six months, the two most outspoken elements in the pro-Khatami reform movement -- young people, who account for about 65 percent of Iran’s population of 70 million, and the independent media -- have faced increasing repression at the hands of conservatives and surrogate vigilantes.

Many reformist papers have been silenced and many journalists imprisoned by the nation’s conservative judiciary.