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Mainstream Iran joins student protests

By Geneive Abdo
The Guardian
July 10, 2000

A new challenge to President Mohammed Khatami's government has emerged in the wake of demonstrations at the weekend in central Tehran, where thousands of Iran's poor joined university students in a bloody battle with Islamic extremists. The spontaneous coalition on Saturday night of students and ordinary Iranians demanding improved social conditions marked a turning point in the struggle to redefine the Islamic Republic.

A year ago, it was primarily students who demanded more freedom and political reform, as they spilled their blood on the nation's campuses and city streets. Now, the cries for profound change are coming from mainstream society.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, summoned President Khatami and senior government officials to his residence yesterday to discuss the crisis. State radio said the ayatollah blamed the demonstration on foreign "enemies" and called on the nation and the government to remain on high alert.

President Khatami flies to Berlin today, where he is expected to face more protests from as many as 25,000 members of emigre groups who have been exiled from Iran.

The visit will be the first to Germany by an Iranian leader since 1967 and, to stem the possibility of public unrest, one official said 6,000 dissidents had already been stopped from travelling to Berlin, where security will be even tighter than during President Clinton's visit last month.

Even before Saturday's protest in Tehran, which left dozens seriously injured after Islamic vigilantes used clubs to beat back the protesters, sporadic demonstrations against electricity shortages and sub-standard drinking water had erupted in a number of Iranian cities, including in the oil centre, Abadan, near the Iraqi border.

The demonstrations were planned to mark the first anniversary of pro-democracy rallies on July 8 last year, which sparked six days of the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The leading student group, the Office to Consolidate Unity, had organised the rally to honour the hundreds of students injured when the police, aided by Islamic vigilantes, broke into dormitories at Tehran University and beat the residents, some as they slept.

President Khatami and his allies had tried to head off public protest, predicting that the peaceful rallies could turn bloody. In a prophetic speech last week, Mr Khatami warned his conservative rivals that Iranians were dissatisfied and this discontent could no longer be contained by force.

"We must not expect the people to behave as we would like, and [threaten] to suppress them if they don't," he said.

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

The explosion on Saturday was directed not only at the hardline clerical establishment but also at President Khatami, who was criticised for failing to make profound changes to the system.

"The clerics live like kings, while the people are reduced to poverty," shouted the crowd. Other chants followed: "Khatami, Khatami, show your power or resign," and "Khatami, Khatami, this is the final notice".

The president's weakness was on public display, as hundreds of Islamic vigilantes from the Ansar-e Hizbullah and the basij, an Islamic militia, took over Revolution Square, where the demonstrators had gathered. They beat the protesters with clubs and threatened them with lengths of electrical cable and wooden staves, weapons delivered to the scene in state-owned vehicles, including ambulances.

Once again, it was evident that President Khatami's policy of "rule of law" had taken a back seat to the hardliners' brute force. The president does not control the armed forces; that power lies with Ayatollah Khamenei, who is closely aligned with the conservatives.

Masoud Dehnamaki, a leader in the Ansar-e Hizbullah, said last week that the extremists have not even begun to confront the reformist movement, despite numerous violent acts for which they have claimed responsibility.

"The leader of the Islamic revolution has invited all to respect the bounds of morality," he said, justifying the extremists' activities.


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