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Iran: Tehran Mostly Quiet After Fourth Anniversary Of Pro-Democracy Protests

  • Charles Recknagel

Police clashed with demonstrators overnight near Tehran University as students observed the fourth anniversary of nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1999. But the capital has been mostly quiet for the anniversary, confirming the success of police and hard-line vigilante groups in keeping Iran's reformist students off the streets.

Prague, 10 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian authorities made it clear in the run-up to yesterday's anniversary of 1999's student unrest that they would crack down hard on any observances, and their warnings appear to have had effect.

Expecting trouble, the government banned any demonstrations, shut down universities for the week, forced students to evacuate their dormitories, and posted security forces near the major Tehran student housing complex of Tehran University.

The Tehran University dormitories were the flash point for the pro-democracy protests that swept Iran four years ago after hard-line vigilantes violently attacked students protesting the closure of a reformist newspaper. The unrest led to widespread rioting and a fierce crackdown by security forces in which at least one person was killed.

Iran's leading pro-democracy student group -- the Office to Foster Unity -- canceled a planned sit-in outside a UN office in Tehran yesterday due to security concerns. Three members of the group -- which had sent a letter to the UN secretary-general calling for help in promoting democracy and human rights -- were later arrested as they held a press conference to explain why they had called off the event.

The three arrested students joined some 4,000 other people who the authorities continue to hold following 10 days of unrest last month. They were detained as pro-democracy students and other demonstrators demanded the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

Still, while student groups canceled any plans for day-time rallies, several thousand demonstrators did slip into the streets around the university overnight to protest under the cover of darkness. Some of the demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs at police and vigilante groups, but most stayed in their cars, driving around the area and honking their horns.

The demonstrators' slogans particularly targeted Khatami, who was re-elected in 2001 on promises to work for greater political and social freedoms. Since then, almost all reformist initiatives have been rolled back by conservatives, despite the reformists' majority in parliament.

Analysts say yesterday's observance of the 1999 unrest fits what is increasingly becoming a pattern in Iran of peaceful demonstrations banned by day giving way to violent protests under the cover of night.

A. William Samii, RFE/RL's regional specialist for Iran, says that during the anniversaries immediately following the 1999 unrest, demonstrators held daylight rallies calling on Khatami to push harder for reforms. But a steady hard-line crackdown on the press and the arrests of scores of pro-reform leaders has now disillusioned large numbers of students about Khatami's ability to protect the reform movement. That has scared some demonstrators off the streets while radicalizing others.

"There is a faction within the main student organization which wants to continue backing Khatami and acting within the political system," Samii says. "But more and more of these students and young people are recognizing that trying to operate within the framework of the Iranian political system is a lost cause and that would radicalize them further, and that's the kind of thing that leads to violent protests and underground activities."

Samii says one sign of radicalization is the growing numbers of participants in nighttime protests who mask their faces to conceal their identities. That, too, is in response to the hard-line crackdown.

"It is notable, I think, that a lot of them cover their faces up when they protest because what happens now is that security forces go out there and videotape what is happening and then they come around and stop by people's houses and detain them, [so] there is not as much need to make sweeping and very noticeable arrests," Samii says.

The increasing radicalization of the protesters may mean that yesterday's mostly quiet passage of the 1999 anniversary represents a mixed success for the Iranian government.

Hard-liners in the government are likely to view the few thousands protesters who did take to the streets despite the security clampdown as evidence of the weakness of their opponents.

But Khatami and reformist leaders in parliament can only be dismayed to see demonstrations in support of peaceful change steadily giving way to direct -- if, for now, furtive -- confrontations with the establishment. Khatami has long sought to change the Islamic Republic from within the system and warned against street unrest as endangering society.

Khatami's brother Mohammad Reza, who heads Iran's largest reform party -- the Islamic Iran Participation Front -- this week called on the president to prevent the torture of political prisoners, including those arrested in last month's protest. He also accused unofficial organizations such as vigilante groups of making arrests and operating in parallel to the normal security apparatus.

Reformists have been particularly angered by the hard-line judiciary's willingness to tolerate -- some reformists say employ -- vigilante groups to violently attack pro-democracy demonstrators. The vigilantes, readily identifiable by their characteristic beards and untucked shirts, are fiercely loyal to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

During last night's clashes, the vigilantes were out in force, using clubs to beat protesters. Police struggling to keep protesters and vigilantes apart were reported at times to be clashing with both groups in an effort to maintain order.

Tehran has blamed all recent street unrest on Washington, saying it is stoked by Iranian exile satellite television stations based in Los Angeles. The government jammed all transmissions into the country from the stations this week as part of its clampdown on anniversary observances.