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Iran: Student Protests Grow Into Major Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 12 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The attack on liberal students at Tehran University by conservative vigilantes last week is showing all the signs of growing into a major political crisis over the progress of political reforms in Iran.

The attack Thursday saw police standing by as members of the hardline vigilante group Ansar-e-Hezbollah, armed with iron bars and clubs, went on a rampage against a peaceful rally supporting press freedom at Tehran University's dormitory complex.

The death toll from the vigilantes' assault is still unclear. The government has said that one person was killed. But students say as many as five of their classmates died in the melee.

Since the incident, Iranian students in major cities across the country have taken to the streets to protest not only the attack at Tehran University but also what they see as the aiding and abetting of the vigilantes by conservatives in top power positions, including those overseeing the police force.

Over the weekend he protests have been large, vocal and angry in Tehran. The demonstrations -- now in their fifth day -- have also spread to Iran's second city of Mashhad, as well as to Isfahan, Shiraz, Hamdan, Rasht, and Tabriz. With as many as 20,000 students taking part in Tehran alone, they are the largest protest rallies since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Analysts say last week's clash at Tehran University has all the hallmarks of turning into a powerful call-to-action for liberal Iranians who are locked in a tense political standoff with conservatives. The passions aroused by the attack could pose the relatively moderate government of President Mohammad Khatami with its greatest crisis to date.

William Samii, a RFE/RL specialist on Iran, says the vigilante assault is seen by many liberal students as a sign Khatami has been unable to fulfill his promises to expand personal freedoms and usher in a rule of civil law to protect them from ultra-conservative pressure groups. Those groups have felt free since the Islamic Revolution to impose their values on opponents, even by force.

Samii says that the students have held high expectations of Khatami since his landslide election two years ago in a campaign which largely targeted Iran's growing population of young adults. But he says the students are now tired of seeing Khatami's efforts frustrated by conservatives and are demanding he do more.

"Pressure has been building for many months. Even though Khatami is a cleric, he represented a more reformist approach to the issues. This contrasted sharply with his opponent, who was the parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri, who is considered very reactionary. Since the election, however, the conservatives have blocked most attempts to reform the restrictive laws and the expectations of the mainly youthful electorate haven't been fulfilled yet."

Some 50 percent of Iran's population is under 24. Many have no direct memory of the Islamic Revolution and have rising expectations of a more prosperous and free life than that of their parents. Their sense of frustration has only increased as Iran's ailing economy has been hard hit by low oil prices, facing even educated youths with poor prospects for employment.

So far, the main effect of the vigilante attack has been to push students into publicly voicing their demands for greater freedom as never before.

The students who were attacked by the Ansar-e-Hezbollah were attending a rally calling only for the lifting of a ban on a leading pro-reform newspaper, Salam. The paper was recently closed by a Special Court for Clergy operating independently of the civil judiciary.

But since the assault by the hardline vigilantes -- often right-wing youths from poorer and more conservative backgrounds -- the nationwide student protests have voiced a whole range of demands urging Khatami to deliver on his campaign promises no matter the political cost.

Student leaders say they now want not only the lifting of the ban on Salam, which is a strong supporter of Khatami, but also the annulment of tough new press guidelines being considered by parliament, which has long been a conservative bastion. The students have also demanded an end to the screening of election candidates by the conservative clerics of the Guardian Council as the country looks forward to new parliamentary elections next Spring.

Khatami himself has so far reacted cautiously to the student demonstrations. The Supreme National Security Council, which the president chairs, warned students yesterday against continuing the wave of protests, saying any unauthorized assembly would be dealt with by security forces.

That response seemed aimed at discouraging students from pushing ahead with demonstrations for fear they may result in still more violent confrontations with conservatives than last week's incident.

But political factions backing Khatami have, at the same time, championed the students in their demands that they be protected from hardline elements. The Islamic Participation Front, led by the president's brother and comprising many senior government officials, issued a statement Saturday calling the attack on the students unprecedented in the history of the university. It also backed the students in calling for the sacking of the Tehran police chief, who the government so far has only reprimanded.

Meanwhile, Iran's conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also moved to try to defuse tensions by today calling the attack on the university unacceptable. Students at some demonstrations have broken a long taboo in the Islamic Republic against publicly criticizing the supreme leader by faulting Khamenei for not protecting them from conservative intimidation.

Analysts say that the top levels of Iran's establishment -- both the conservative clerics and Khatami's more moderate government -- now face a serious challenge in trying to control the outpouring of the students' anger.

The incident at the university follows repeated political showdowns between conservatives and liberals within Iran's ruling circles during Khatami's two years in office. Those power-struggles have largely concentrated on the printed media, which has been the biggest beneficiary of Khatami's efforts to create a more open society. His term has seen an explosion of newspapers and magazines, both liberal and hardline. They have carried on an often highly-charged public debate over what kind of society Iranians want within the framework of an Islamic state.

Conservatives began another major attempt to roll back press freedoms earlier last week when parliament swept aside objections from Khatami's government to approve the general outlines of tough new restrictions on the media. The outline is now being negotiated with the government in a process expected to last at least three months before parliament faces a final vote.

One reformist deputy, Mohammed Baqir Zakeri, warned of the problems the latest attempt to curb press freedoms might bring when parliament considered the measure last week.

"Given what the Speaker of the House and the Culture Minister have said, I believe that the partiality we saw in the first reading of the bill will not be repeated in the second. I think that we will progress in a way that both the views of the government and the majority faction of Parliament will be satisfied. This is my guess. Otherwise, we may have problems."

In light of the recent wave of student protests sweeping Iran, his warning already seems to have been borne out.