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Iran: Students Clash With Police In Continuing Anti-Government Protests

  • Charles Recknagel

A second night of protests again brought some 3,000 demonstrators into the streets of Tehran to shout anti-government slogans. The protests arose over student concerns about reported plans to privatize elements of the state university system. But the demonstrations have rapidly escalated into sweeping criticism of the government and President Mohammad Khatami's inability to introduce reforms.

Prague, 12 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Students clashed with police for a second night yesterday around Tehran University as what began as a demonstration over educational issues has spiraled into a violent anti-government protest.

The students -- reported to number some 500 -- battled throughout the night with police and Islamic vigilante groups trying to contain them on the university campus. Police cut off some 3,000 more sympathizers from reaching the students.

The sympathizers swarmed around the university area in cars, honking their horns, and shouting slogans against Iran's leaders. Some of these demonstrators were called onto the streets by private Iranian opposition media based in Los Angeles, which routinely call for supporters to join anti-government protests.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan has been closely following the two nights of protests. "What happened is that many of the students went beside the fences separating the university from the outside and started chanting slogans against the security forces and the Islamic vigilantes who were standing outside," Ardalan said. "And then many of the students, those who were more daring, broke through the fences and went in the street and began setting on fire tires and chairs and tables they had brought out from the university. And some of them had also gone on the rooftops of governmental buildings and private homes and began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails."

Ardalan says that during the street clashes, students also took three Islamic vigilantes hostage. The students say they will only release them if the police free students who were arrested.

"This whole saga has ended up in a hostage-taking situation where, for the first time in a show of force by the demonstrating students, and also in a show of organization, the students took hostage three of the Islamic vigilantes that they were having scattered scuffles with throughout the night. They have not been released, and a few of the reformist MPs have gone to talk to the students to convince them to release them, [and] this is the first time we are witnessing this development."

The Iranian intelligence minister announced that 18 people were arrested on the first night of the protests. The protests began with demonstrations against reported government plans to privatize elements of the state-run university system -- something the students fear might increase their currently low tuition costs. But the anger over the reported changes quickly escalated into a sweeping criticism of the regime.

The government has signaled it will take a hard line against the unrest and has blamed it entirely on foreign instigators. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that Iran will be "pitiless toward mercenaries."

The protests are the largest since November, when a hard-line court sentenced a popular professor who was also a leading reformer to death on charges of blasphemy. The sentencing of Professor Hashem Aghajari -- who has not been executed -- brought out up to 5,000 students at Tehran University, with additional student rallies in many key cities nationwide.

Analysts say this week's protests may signal that the reformist student movement -- which has long exercised fitful pressure on the government to speed up reforms -- is again mobilizing after a lull following the Aghajari protests.

Ali Ansari, an expert on Iranian politics at Durham University in England, says discontent has deepened within the reformist student movement, and among reformists in general, over the past months as moderate President Mohammad Khatami has proved unable to champion reforms in the face of pressure from hard-liners.

The analyst sees one measure of the deepening disappointment with Khatami in the results of February's local elections, where reformists lost ground to conservatives in city councils across the country. The poor showing by reformists was widely blamed on low voter turnout by disillusioned supporters.

Ansari says the protests this week appear to be converting popular disillusionment into direct demands that Khatami step down. The protestors chanted "Khatami, Khatami, Resign, Resign" as they also shouted slogans against Khamenei and the rest of the establishment.

Ansari says the reformist students' message is that they are no longer ready to accept Khatami's pleas for patience.

"What they have done is [to say] that they will no longer take the pleas of Khatami seriously anymore. So, if Khatami says, 'Please, let's have calm and go for the next election,' they will say, 'No, we have done all that,' " Ansari says.

In the confusion of the last two nights, it has been difficult to distinguish clearly between the position of the students and that of other demonstrators brought out by Iranian opposition satellite radio and television stations.

The U.S.-based stations, which regularly call for toppling the Islamic regime, command small but dedicated followings within Iran and are able to bring supporters into the streets to join anti-government protests. Some stations demand the restoration of the monarchy deposed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Others back the armed opposition People's Mujahedin, which participated in the Islamic Revolution before falling out in a power struggle.

But Ansari says that, despite the calls for protests from the opposition media, the initiative in the protests is with the reformist students and their direct sympathizers. He also says the protests are likely to continue -- fitfully but persistently -- unless the regime takes some clear action to accommodate the reformists' demands.

"There is an enormous radicalization on the Iranian street today, enormous discontent. Unless you have something dramatic going on in Iran, like they sack the head of the judiciary, or they allow Khatami [to operate], then these things will not calm down," Ansari says.

Khatami has been consistently stymied in recent months in his efforts to increase his powers and control attacks upon his reformist supporters by the hard-line judiciary.

The president presented two bills to the reformist-dominated parliament late last year to eliminate strict vetting procedures for election candidates and to give himself greater power to punish hard-line judges who ignore legal procedures in prosecuting activists.

The conservative Guardian Council, a constitution oversight body, has blocked both measures.

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