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Iran: Vigilantes And Students Battle Over Countrys Future

As Iranian college students continue protests demanding reforms in the country, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the role of organized vigilantes in efforts to stop the protests.

Prague, 13 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian students are taking part in a sixth day of demonstrations. And the vigilantes whose attacks last week intensified the unrest are continuing to crack down on protestors without interference from police.

Correspondents report that vigilantes with the hardline Ansar-e-Hezbollah group again moved into Tehran's university area last night after the streets were cleared by the riot police. Reuters reported that the vigilantes, armed with stones, sticks, and meat cleavers, patrolled near the campus on motorcycles and in trucks. Police did nothing to interfere with the vigilantes' movements as students ducked for cover into dormitory buildings and nearby private homes.

Thousands of students defied a government ban on demonstrations again today to take to the streets. The previous five days of unrest, which has spread to other major Iranian cities, has left at least two people dead and scores injured.

The vigilantes' continued and highly-visible presence is only likely to further anger the students. Members of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah swept down on a student rally at Tehran University last Thursday with clubs, leaving one person dead by the government's account but at least five dead according to the students.

Analysts say that one of the reasons the students have reacted so passionately to last week's attack is that it was only the latest in a long series of assaults on liberal student rallies by the Ansar-e-Hezbollah in recent years.

Edmund Herzig, an expert on Iran at the University of Manchester, talked with RFE/RL by telephone today about the trend in clashes between students and vigilantes.

"It is really an escalation of a pattern which has been going on for a number of years in which very often the Ansar-e-Hezbollah have been used to intimidate and break up any kind of opposition, progressive [and] liberal opposition, to the leadership...They have rarely been interfered with when doing that by the security forces or the police. So, even when there hasn't been any evidence of actual collusion...there has always been a sense that the Hezbollah had a free hand to intimidate and attack and were never called to account for it."

Herzig says both the leadership of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah and the police identify with hardline clerics who oppose attempts by backers of moderate President Mohammad Khatami to increase liberties in Iran.

Analysts say the Hezbollah are well-linked to the conservative clerical establishment and receive generous funding from quasi state religious foundations which control much of the Iran's economy. While the group's total membership is unknown, it is able to mobilize enough people to play a significant role in all Iran's major cities.

The Hezbollah's role as the guardians of the Islamic Revolution brings them into particular conflict with liberal university students, who are among the most fervent supporters of reform efforts.

Herzig says the command structure of the police shares many of the vigilantes' ultra-conservative values. Nominally, the police are within the interior ministry, which is currently headed by a Khatami ally. But in fact, the police maintain considerable independence in the day-to-day chain of command. This is possible because the Iranian constitution gives supervisory roles over security forces both to the government and to Islamic structures headed by conservative clerics. Edmund Herzig says:

"There is a gray area and one has to remember that in Iran it is only too possible for competing chains of command to be co-existing. It's quite clear from the response of the interior ministry to these latest events that the police in this instance have not been acting in a way that the interior ministry would have wanted them to act and it does seem likely that the [police] leadership on the ground overstepped the mark."

In the wake of the vigilante's initial attack on the students last week, the government dismissed two senior police officers but stopped short of the students' demands to sack Tehran's police chief.

As students and vigilantes both continue to take to the streets of the capital and other cities, both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Khatami have issued repeated calls for calm. The Supreme Leader's calls are widely seen as appeals to groups like the Ansar-e-Hezbollah to stop attacks on the students. The moderate president has directly told the students who support him to end the unrest.

Herzig says that both leaders are anxious to rein in radicals on either side of the spectrum they represent before the clashes escalate further.

"Both the supreme leader Ali Khamenei and President Khatami have to some extent been trying to find some middle ground and rein in the more radical and uncompromising of their supporters ... so clearly ... the entire leadership see the dangers of this kind of violence and conflict at a societal level actually playing itself out in the streets of Tehran. They see the danger of this for the social and, indeed, in the long run, the political stability of the country and everybody in the government and the regime has an interest in maintaining that."

Analysts say the danger that clashes between liberal students and ultra-conservative elements like the Ansar-e-Hezbollah will sharpen is heightened by the fact that both sides have been radicalized by Iran's ailing economy. The economic problems have increased the difficulty of providing enough jobs for young people.

These frustrations may also play into the antipathy between the students and the vigilantes, who are usually youths from poorer and less educated families.

Iran's population has doubled since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and some 50 percent are now under the age of 24. Each year some one million young Iranians seek to enter the labor market, which can only absorb less than half that number. The result is that unemployment, which is put by many estimates at 15 to 25 percent, is steadily rising. This threatens both the poor and uneducated as well as the highly trained alike.

That makes the conflict between the students and conservatives ideological, economic and personal. The students believe Iran's only way out of its economic crisis is through greater modernization and greater personal and economic freedom. The conservatives say the way lies in the opposite direction: through less freedom and greater sacrifice to Iran's Islamic revolution.