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Iran: Protests Continue Amid Warnings Of Crackdown, Plea By U.S.

By Kathleen Knox/Farangis Najibullah

There was another night of unrest in Tehran, where students and residents have been taking to the streets to protest both the government and the country's hard-line religious leaders. That's despite warnings of a crackdown by Iran's supreme leader.

Prague, 13 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Iranians gathered again in central Tehran last night, the third night of protests against the country's rulers.

Police fired tear gas, dispersing demonstrators and many more sympathetic onlookers. Hard-line vigilantes on motorcycles chased down some protesters and beat them.

The unrest began earlier this week when students protested against plans to privatize universities. But the demonstrations have quickly taken on a more overtly political tone.

Some protesters last night chanted slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while others railed against the slow pace of social reforms under President Mohammad Khatami.

Shayan-e Jaberi, a correspondent in Tehran for RFE/RL's Radio Farda, says the demonstrations do not appear to be organized behind one particular leader or slogan. He says last night's rallies were a broad display of dissatisfaction -- with many ordinary Iranians, not just students, taking part.

"We could say that the driving force behind the demonstration was the students' protest. But on the other hand, Iranian people who are under increasing political, social, and economic pressure have been looking for a reason to express themselves," Jaberi said.

Last night's protests followed warnings by Khamenei yesterday of a crackdown against what he called "adventurers." And he blamed the United States for stirring the unrest.

"Americans are trying to establish a global dictatorship, but they are unaware that a global dictatorship -- especially one based on bayonets and bullets -- would be suppressed by the world's free-spirited nations. No nation in the world which is free and resolute would accept dictatorship, including a dictatorship in their own country," Khamenei said.

Also yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "It's our hope that the voice of the Iranian people and their call for democracy and the rule of law will be heard and transform Iran into a force for stability in the region. We view with concern the arrests of protesters taken into detention simply for voicing their political views, and we expect the regime to protect their human rights and release them."

The protests have drawn comparisons with the pro-reform demonstrations in Iran in 1999, where violence between security forces and protesters left at least one student dead.

But Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran University, notes one important difference -- this time, the students are also protesting against Khatami and his reformists.

"It is a mixture of both social and political protest," Zibakalam said. "But this demonstration and its dimensions are far smaller, more insignificant, and limited than what is being shown abroad."

Anoush Ehteshami, a professor at Durham University's Center for Iranian Studies in the United Kingdom, describes as significant reports that police in some places actually intervened to prevent the hard-line Ansar Hizbullah militia from attacking protesters.

"It's very significant. The last thing the government or the students want is for Ansar Hizbullah to be mobilized, where we end up with bloody casualties and really go back to the scenes of 1999 where we really had very serious rioting in Tehran and elsewhere. To contain the situation would require managing the demonstrations, and you don't manage them by unleashing your militias," Ehteshami said.

Another observer said this move could also signal that Khatami is worried about losing further popularity among students and young people.

The students have promised to continue their protests.