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Iran: Protests Straining Society, Relations With The U.S.

A recent wave of anti-government protests in Iran is continuing, as police and hard-line vigilante groups seek to suppress students and their supporters. The demonstrations -- now in their sixth day -- are putting pressure on both conservative elements and President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government. The protests are also straining ties with the United States.

Prague, 16 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-regime protests are continuing in Iran for a sixth day. Reports say the protests, mostly centered in the capital Tehran, have now spread to other cities, including Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, and Mashad.

Last night, cars and people clogged streets near the main campus of Tehran University. Protesters called for the release of political prisoners and the resignation of President Mohammad Khatami.

Police and hard-line vigilante groups later cracked down on the protesters. Some 30 people were reportedly arrested on charges of hooliganism, bringing the number of people who have been detained in the past week to more than 140.

A correspondent from RFE/RL's Radio Farda interviewed a young woman who lives near where the protests took place.

"Last night the noise was extremely loud," she said. "I think [the demonstrations] continued until midnight or one o'clock in the morning. The law enforcement forces were there. They were beating people as if they wanted to beat them to death. I heard shooting. I think the [vigilantes] were also there. We couldn't sleep until one o'clock because of the noise."

The protests, at times involving thousands of people, are aimed at both Iran's hard-line Islamic regime and the reformist group centered around Khatami. Many demonstrators say the reformers have not gone far enough in promoting democratic change.

The demonstrations are considered the most serious challenge to the leadership since a wave of university protests in the summer of 1999. They have exposed deep divisions within Iranian society.

A leading group of dissidents yesterday issued a strong reproach to the hard-line leadership of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The statement, signed by some 250 intellectuals, journalists, and clerics, stressed the right of the people to fully supervise the actions of their rulers.

The statement -- referring to all-powerful religious leaders -- said that individuals who act as if they have "divine and absolute power" commit a "clear heresy toward God" and a "clear affront to human dignity."

The protests are also straining the country's already poor ties with the United States.

The United States has voiced support for the demonstrations. U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday he sees the protests as positive. "This is the beginnings of people expressing themselves for a free Iran, which I think is positive," Bush said. The White House had earlier issued a statement expressing concern over the use of violence by vigilantes against the students.

Iran, which suspects the United States of actively encouraging the protests, has reacted strongly. The Foreign Ministry said today it was "currently impossible" for the Islamic Republic to engage in any dialogue with the United States. Iran has sent a protest note to Washington.

Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the two countries had recently been engaged in discreet talks through a forum initially set up to address the crisis in Afghanistan.

Those contacts were halted after the suicide bombings in Riyadh in May that killed 35 people. U.S. officials say they suspect Iran-based operatives of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of being involved in the attack.

The protests are expected to last at least until 9 July, the anniversary of the 1999 student demonstrations.

(Radio Farda and RFE/RL's Farangis Najibullah contributed to this feature.)

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.