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Iran: Media Battle Sparks Iran Protest

As Iranian students continue protests in several Iranian cities, RFE/RL Iran analyst Bill Samii looks at the causes behind their demonstrations.

Prague, 13 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Iranian parliament's preliminary approval of a restrictive new press law and the closure of the moderate daily "Salam" last week, which followed the closure of the reformist "Hoviat-i Khish" and the arrest of its proprietor, have resulted in the most disruptive demonstrations in the country since the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution.

As students from the Office for Strengthening Unity and other university organizations protested on Thursday evening, they were attacked by the Ansar-i Hizbullah and the University Basij, violent ultra-conservative organizations. After the demonstrators retreated to their dormitories, the hardliners and police followed them and set fires. There were dozens of injuries and at least one death.

Student leader Siamak Darvish described the events on Thursday for RFE/RL's Persian Service:

"This gathering started at 1000 in the morning and lasted until 1400 in the afternoon. At 1400, after lunch and prayers, our friends were supposed to go to the environs of the university and continue the protest. The Office for Strengthening Unity called for the protests to continue for a week."

It was at this point, he said, that the attacks on the students began. He said that by Saturday, the violence had left 200 people arrested, 150 injured, and up to five killed. Siamak Darvish said: "We know the names of three of the dead students. They are Mr. Naimi, Mr. Zakeri, and Mr. Yavari. We know they are students and their names have been confirmed. ...There may be two more, but we do not have complete information." Students in Rasht, Tabriz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz also demonstrated in the following days. At a march in Tehran yesterday, some students covered their faces to avoid possible retaliation.

The Higher Education and Culture Ministry issued a statement objecting to the police force's actions, and the university chancellors declared their support for the students. The Tehran city council also objected to the law enforcement agencies' actions. In Qom, senior clerics Ayatollahs Abdul-Karim Musavi-Ardabili and Yusef Sanei suspended their lectures to protest the assault against the students.

Siamak Darvish described the students' demands:

"Iranian students don't want anything. They want freedom of the [press], freedom of thought, and respect for their rights. They want non-interference with expression of their rights. To be able to speak freely. They resent creation of the University Basij, which is an arm of the military."

On Saturday, Khatami called a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, which subsequently stated: "This unfortunate incident is totally unacceptable and unforgivable." It also fired the police official who allegedly ordered the attack and said police official General Muhammad Ahmadi and an unnamed deputy were turned over to the judiciary.

These recent student demonstrations represent the culmination of pressure built up over many months. Although Khatami is a cleric, he was elected in May 1997 because he represented something other than the conservative status quo as represented by his reactionary opponent. But the mainly youthful electorate's expectations have not been fulfilled since the election, because the conservatives consistently block efforts at reform.

Fifty percent of the population is under 25, yet with over 25 percent unemployment, even the educated have very poor job prospects. They feel disillusioned, and with parliament's new press law, their right of self-expression is increasingly limited. Many of the students find it difficult to identify with the reasons for the 1979 revolution. Many are devout Muslims and some are veterans of the eight-year war against Iraq (1980-1988). But the system for which they fought and sacrificed so much has failed to fulfill its promises.

So, too, has Khatami, at least so far. His failure to react publicly when students themselves are attacked, as they were last May, also has provoked their resentment. The most recent demonstrations may encourage Khatami to finally act. If he does not, he may run the risk that some of his supporters will begin to see little difference between him and more conservative elements of the clerical establishment.

In the short-term, it is likely that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will restore order, as he did in April 1998, when students demonstrated against the arrest and imprisonment of Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi.

Khamenei had Karbaschi released and order was restored. But this time some students chanted against Khamenei himself, which is unprecedented.

There is speculation that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps may eventually be employed, along with police, to stop student demonstrations. If that occurs, it would indicate that the ruling elite realizes it does not have full public support.

(William Samii is a specialist on Iran with RFE/RL's Communications Division.)