TEHRAN, July 17 (AFP) - The death here of a Canadian-Iranian photographer after she was arrested and apparently beaten has added more fuel to the Islamic republic's political crisis, with the embattled reformist camp once again under massive pressure to take on its powerful hardline rivals.
For Iran's pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, the crisis could not have come at a worse time: he is already under the international spotlight over his country's suspect nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and his government's handling of fugitive al-Qaeda members.
Crucially, Khatami is also losing favour among many young people, whose voter clout thrust him in into office in 1997 and again in 2001 but who now view him as having failed to tackle hardline institutions such as the judiciary and its various security apparatuses.
A clear example was given during a bout of anti-regime protests last month when Khatami's assertion that peaceful demonstrations are "a natural part of a democracy" contrasted with thousands of arrests.
But the death of Zahra Kazemi, 54, after she was working on a story related to those arrests has thrust the human rights issue on to an international level.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist, said Kazemi had suffered a "brain haemorrhage caused by a beating" and made the dramatic accusation that it was all part of a hardline campaign to undermine elected reformers.
Reformist MP Ali Shakuri-Rad said the case was "a reflection of the problems inside the judicairy" -- a bastion of religious hardliners and a source of constant irritation for the reform camp -- and would deepen the seemingly intractable political stand-off.
"This is alarming. Although this kind of thing has happened before, this person has dual nationality, so now another foreign country is following the case. This will bring other problems back to the surface," he told AFP.
Prominent reformist writer and spokesman for Iran's Centre for Protecting Journalists, Shams al-Waaizin, said Khatami was now under pressure to make heads roll in the rival camp -- something the mild-mannered mid-ranking cleric has so far been unable to achieve.
"They should declare who the people are who were involved in this case, from the judge who ordered the arrest down to the torturer," he said.
"Iran needs to heal the damage inflicted on the press and its image. It has to identify the person or the persons who have done this and prosecute them. This matter must be contained soon," he said.
Like many other reformist figures spoken to, he pointed the finger at Tehran's new public prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi -- a die-hard hardliner and former head of Tehran's press court best known for his shutting down of scores of pro-reform publications.
A local political analyst, who asked not to be named, said the case was a throw-back to the serial murders of dissidents in 1999 -- killings that caused a national uproar and were eventually blamed on "rogue elements" in the intelligence ministry and prompted a major shake-up of the institution.
"If this issue leads to a group inside the judiciary or Revolutionary Guards being identified, then again we are facing a very sensitive murder case, but this time with an international impact," he said.
Ghasem Sholeh-Sadi, a Tehran University law professor, said the incident was nothing short of a public relations catastrophe for the Islamic republic -- meaning Khatami has been left with no choice but to show what muscle he has or else concede defeat.
"This is a good excuse for the reformists to start challenging the conservatives. Because of the international dimension of the case, and because Iran is under pressure generally, it can make the political conflict more serious," he said.
"This has negative consequences for the unelected parts of the regime such as the judiciary. This is on their shoulders. But the reformists are under more pressure and have to act, because people are beginning to see them as the same as conservatives."