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Youth, elderly join Iran students in angry outburst

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, July 9 (Reuters) - Out-of-work youth, women and old men joined angry students in Iran's worst outburst of social unrest in the past year, creating a combustible mix that has left reformers scrambling to keep up with society's demands. Photo here

The trouble began on Saturday after student rallies to mark the first anniversary of the bloody suppression of a pro-democracy rally turned into a general expression of social discontent.

Iran's main student movement, the Office to Consolidate Unity, had called for peaceful commemorations, including the distribution of flowers in a day of passive protest.

It later distanced itself from the violence, saying the unrest had nothing to do with students. As they had last year during Tehran's six days of rage, the Office had lost control of events.

President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist elected in 1997 with the overwhelming support of students, young people and women, also appealed for calm, as did his allies in the new parliament.

But in words that were to prove prophetic on the eve of the anniversary, the president warned the conservative clerical establishment that it could not maintain its grip by force.

``We must not expect the people to behave as we like, and (threaten) to suppress them if they don't,'' the president said during a provincial tour.

``People must be allowed to speak freely and criticise their government. If people are left unsatisfied, this will one day lead to an explosion.''


That explosion erupted as a swelling crowd in Revolution Square, just outside the gates of Tehran University, turned on the ruling clerical elite with increasing venom.

Traditional student concerns of free speech and political pluralism were left behind. By the end, university students appeared to number about 10 percent of the crowd.

Instead the protesters, now in their many thousands, targeted supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and served notice on President Khatami, long seen as the champion of reform despite his weak executive powers, that their patience was running out.

``The clerics live like kings, while the people are reduced to poverty,'' shouted the crowd. Chants of ``Khatami, Khatami, show your power or resign'' and ``Khatami, Khatami, this is the final notice'' swept through the square.

Fearful of police reprisals, the demonstrators had earlier chatted up the conscripts, calling them ``brothers.'' When the order came to disperse the crowd, these same conscripts failed to respond and some officers slipped away into side streets.

That left the field open to the Islamic Basij militia and their allies in the hardline vigilante group, Ansar-e Hezbollah.

At one point several Nissan Patrol jeeps, their number plates marking them government vehicles, drove up and unloaded clubs and wooden staves for the vigilantes.

Ansar leaders also handed out lengths of electrical cable as their shock troops took over from the state security forces and drove the crowd from the square.

Scores were arrested, after being beaten by the Ansar and handed over to waiting police vans, some from as far away as Tehran's northern reaches.

By late evening, the Ansar were in control of Revolution Square. A trail of broken glass, from the windows of shops and banks, traced the path of the retreating crowds.


Among the most stark lessons from the latest unrest was the failure of ``flower power'' in the face of a society increasingly pressured by mounting economic hardship and frustrated in its demands for basic rights and freedoms.

A huge baby boom is working its way painfully through society, overwhelming an anaemic economy that cannot generate enough jobs without the structural reform long resisted by the traditional bazaari merchants who helped finance the 1979 revolution.

Foreign direct investment, hailed by many as Iran's salvation, has largely failed to materialise, with foreign businessmen deterred by endless regulations, political corruption and the kind of political instability displayed on Saturday.

The troubles also underscored the apparent shortcomings in the Khatami camp's tactics of trying simply to outlast their conservative rivals.

In April, the hardline judiciary closed without trial almost all major pro-reform publications, dealing a heavy blow to the reformers' bid for a civil society within Iran's Islamic system.

To a degree that continues to baffle outside observers, ordinary Iranians appear at least as outraged by the loss of their independent newspapers as by their mounting economic woes.

Leading pro-reform intellectuals and political figures have also been tossed in jail, in a campaign that built on earlier attacks on modernist clerics and theologians.

And basic demands for the rule of law are routinely flaunted.

The trial of police commanders blamed for the attack on the pro-democracy rally on the night of July 8-9, 1999, has failed to deliver a verdict. The plaintiffs' lawyer has been jailed.

To date, no one has been held accountable for the assault, which students say left six people dead and hundreds injured.

``The students and the people both have legitimate demands that are not being met,'' one veteran student leader told Reuters. ``Something will have to give.''


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