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Students Distance Themselves From Protesters

The Wall Street Journal Europe
July 28, 1999

TEHRAN, Iran -- Security officials in Iran are using recent student riots to crack down on dissidents opposed to the country's Islamic regime, and they are getting little protest from student groups that favor more limited reforms.

Mainstream student activists, instead of planning new demonstrations, are trying to distance themselves from protesters who called for the resignation of Iran 's supreme leader or forged links with Iranians abroad. Representatives of the largest student group met this week with Iran 's intelligence ministry and Revolutionary Guards to discuss the violent protests of two weeks ago, and have asked for a meeting with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We're trying to keep a dialogue," said Akbar Atri, a top official of the largest student group, Organization for Fortifying Unity, which says some of its members are still under arrest.

Another student activist said: "Let's not forget, the student movement is not after a revolution, or overthrowing the government," but to win rights, such as free speech, that are already in Iran 's constitution. "The regime is capable of making changes," said the student, who asked not to be named.

The riots, prompted by a deadly July 9 police assault on a student dormitory, were the worst in a series of street clashes since the 1997 election as president of Mohammed Khatami, who promised greater cultural freedoms in Iran .

Tuesday, in his first speech since the riots, Mr. Khatami said he had expected the country to pay an even greater price for his recent struggles with extreme hardliners. Speaking in the regional capital of Hamadan, Iran , he called the dormitory raid a "war on the president," but said he is in full accord with the conservative Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's supreme leader.

Iran 's security forces, led by hardliners, are continuing to arrest rioters, using photographs and films of the four days of street protests. Neither the government nor students will say how many students were rounded up. But the intelligence ministry on Tuesday released 10 names of detained students that it says were involved with secular parties. Some Iranians say elderly activists also were detained in recent days.

Iran has several small nationalist parties that call for separation of religion and state. Iran tolerates them, except when tensions rise. The leaders of one such party were among a wave of dissidents killed last December; the intelligence ministry later admitted one of its officials ordered the killings.

In the latest crackdown, Iranian hardliners are implicitly warning activists away from contacts with foreigners, including the news media. Among the charges that Iran 's intelligence ministry leveled against several arrested students this week were that they were making "contacts with foreign media" and that they were soliciting financial help from Americans.

The hardliner-controlled television has made a media star of one arrested student named Manouchehr Mohammadi. Last week, it showed him confessing to contacts with secular dissidents, and aired footage of Mr. Mohammadi criticizing the regime in an address to a pro-royalist group in the U.S.

On Monday, it featured an edited interview in which he described receiving aid from America "three or four times," but wasn't specific. A relative answering the phone at Mr. Mohammadi's brother's house Monday declined to talk about his case.

Students and followers of the student movement in Iran describe Mr. Mohammadi, a former economics student, as a simple villager who was good at organizing demonstrations but had little following on campus. They say it is suspicious that he was able to travel to the U.S. last autumn, because most students have their passports held until they have completed military service. Some students also wonder why he wasn't arrested immediately on his return.

"The way he was acting was dubious, going abroad and showing up in a meeting with everybody -- monarchists, communists," says Safa Haeri, a Paris-based dissident who flew to Ankara, Turkey, to meet Mr. Mohammedi last autumn. Mr. Haeri adds: "Some people worried he was an informer, going to see what dissidents abroad are doing."

Either way, Mr. Mohammedi's case shows how diffuse Iran 's student movement is, with no real leader and little coordination among groups.


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