By Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN - Students, once the backbone of Iran's reformist movement, have barracked and harangued President Mohammad Khatami, accusing him of lacking the courage to deliver promised democratic reforms in the Islamic state.
"Khatami, what happened to your promised freedoms?", "Khatami, shame on you", "Students are wise, they detest Khatami" groups shouted as the moderate cleric attempted to address a group of about 1,500 students at Tehran University on Monday.
The speech, held to mark Iran's annual Students Day, marked a nadir for Khatami's relations with students who were a major force in his stunning electoral victories of 1997 and 2001.
Now nearing the end of his second and final term, which concludes in mid-2005, Khatami has lost the backing of even some of his most ardent supporters, many of whom feel he failed to stand up to hardliners who have blocked his efforts at reform.
Khatami, visibly shaken by the students' anger, defended his record and criticised powerful hardliners who have jailed dissidents, closed newspapers and rejected key reform bills.
"My period is going to be over soon but I do not owe anyone," he said. "Those power-seeking fanatics who ignored the people's demands and resisted reforms, they owe me. The ones who destroyed Iran's image in the world, they owe me."
Analysts say Khatami, once seen by the West as a great hope for change in the Islamic Republic, is serving out his final months as a virtual political lame duck.
Islamic conservatives opposed to any watering down of Islamic values and the clerical grip on power are poised to regain the presidency in elections next year after taking control of parliament in a vote in February 2004.
At times applauded and at others booed by the boisterous crowd jammed into a university lecture theatre, Khatami lashed out with uncharacteristic anger when chants forced him to interrupt his speech.
"Just stop it. I will tell them to throw you out," he said. "You are unable to tolerate anything, even words," he said.
Later he said that despite restrictions on free speech in Iran, where over 100 publications have been muzzled in the last four years, the situation was better than in many countries.
"There is no Third World country where the students can talk to their president and criticise the government as you do now," he said. "You are freely chanting slogans against the government."
He said he still believed the path of reform would succeed.
"I really believe in this system and the (1979 Islamic) revolution and I believe this system can be developed from the inside," he said.
But for most present, Khatami's words merely underlined the impotence of a man who they now view as part of a system which is unwilling to accept real change.
"Khatami himself is responsible for the problems created in the country," said Zahra, 19, a student of mechanical engineering. "He did not behave properly."
Many students, who make up a key part of the electorate in a country where two-thirds are aged under 30 and the voting age is 15, say their disillusionment with Khatami's failed promises mean they will not vote in next year's elections.