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June 14th, 2003, 07:38 AM
June 14, 2003

Student Protests in Tehran Become Nightly Fights for Freedom


TEHRAN, Saturday, June 14 A large swath of central Tehran turned into a combat zone overnight with running battles between demonstrators denouncing Iran's Islamic government and vigilantes and riot police officers determined to drive them off the streets.

What started as a small student march against the issue of university privatization on Tuesday has snowballed into violent nightly protests by demonstrators from across the social spectrum demanding more social, economic and political freedom.

The protests on Friday night were the largest and most violent to date, erupting on the campus of Shaheed Beheshti University in northern Tehran and clogging the two major highways leading to the dormitories of Tehran University.

"This is civil disobedience," said a 45-year-old man beside his car on Chamron Highway, where demonstrators ignited tires and even trees along the road. "We are standing up against them. We are resisting and protesting against the regime."

The riot police and other troops were deployed all day around Tehran University to prevent crowds gathering, while the city's police chief, Ali Talai, told students his men were there to prevent "infiltrators" from reaching the campus, reported Iran's Student News Agency.

The agency said, however, that vigilantes and riot police officers attacked four dormitories early today, breaking doors and windows and severely beating at least one male. It also reported the arrests of five female students.

The Baseej, a shadowy paramilitary group, sometimes also known as Ansar Hezbollah, appeared around the city in groups of 150 to 200, some on motorbikes and some in pickups. They are believed to be under the control of the country's supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who warned a day earlier that the government would respond harshly to student protests.

The vigilantes beat demonstrators with wooden batons and rubber truncheons, sometimes hauling them out of their cars to do it. They raced along sidewalks on their motorbikes, striking even women and demanding that everyone return home.

Some guarded major intersections carrying Kalashnikov rifles, and one eyewitness said he had seen a demonstrator shot in the foot or lower leg. Another said he had seen a demonstrator slashed across the face with a razor blade. The number of those injured or arrested could not be immediately determined.

Officially, Iran all but ignored the events. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who led Friday Prayers, concentrated on what he called the failure of United States efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In recent months, relations with the United States have soured, and the government is worried about Washington's intentions. The demonstrators were repeatedly accused of acting at the behest of the Americans.

In his few remarks on the riots, Mr. Rafsanjani said people should not pay attention to satellite television watched illegally by most middle-class Iranians. Persian-language opposition television stations operating from California, portraying the demonstrations as a reversal of the 1979 Islamic revolution, have been calling on Iranians to pour into the streets.

"I advise them to be careful not to fall in the well that the Americans have dug," Mr. Rafsanjani said of the demonstrators at Friday Prayers. "Be careful not to be trapped by the evil television networks that Americans have established."

Iran's own state-run television news mentioned bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza and demonstrations by Iraqis against the United States' occupation, but nothing about the violence in their capital.

By 3 a.m., many of the streets around Tehran University were filled with broken glass and fragments of bricks and flower pots the demonstrators and vigilantes had hurled at one another.

The vigilantes in their trucks and on motorcycles staged victory laps around the campus, drumming on their trucks with their truncheons.

Oddly, the night had begun almost in a carnival atmosphere. As the sun set and a full moon rose, many families jumped in their cars to go look at the gathering riot police and students just beginning to chant anti-government slogans.

As the first bonfires were lit and the traffic started to snarl, one driver yelled at a man who climbed out of his car and tried to direct traffic around a bonfire.

"Just be patient, we are trying to have a revolution," the man answered.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

June 14th, 2003, 09:18 AM
June 14, 2003

A Growing Fury in Iran

Iran's unpopular and economically failing Islamic dictatorship now faces serious challenges from several directions. University students question its legitimacy in the streets. Reformist politicians seek wider powers for the elected parliament. Washington, now a military force in the region with troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, demands an end to Tehran's nuclear weapons development and support for terrorism.

Predictably, the conservative clerics who exercise real power in Iran are trying to blame all their problems on a Satanic America. Even they must know better. What fuels unrest in Iran today isn't the machinations of Washington but the explosive discontent of the Iranian people, especially the young and the educated. After nearly 25 years of an Islamic dictatorship that has drastically limited personal freedoms and stunted economic growth, the Iranian people are eager for change. They are also frustrated with the timidity and limited accomplishments of the reformist leaders they have repeatedly backed with overwhelming electoral majorities.

This week, thousands of Tehran University students staged large protest marches, drawing support from the capital's middle-class neighborhoods. Standing up to this brutal regime takes courage. Past student demonstrations have been crushed and their leaders imprisoned. Early Saturday morning, Islamic vigilantes tried to halt the current protests by attacking students with wooden batons and rubber truncheons. Middle-class Iranians, for their part, engage in quieter and less risky forms of protest. Repression and anti-Americanism have helped sustain clerical rule for nearly a quarter century. Both now seem to be losing some of their potency.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company