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Growing and spreading
Civil disobedience and international pressure leading up to July 9th anniversary

June 24, 3003
The Iranian

History is made with one brave act at a time. The spontaneous protests against the clerical rulers of Iran by thousands of young Iranians, led mainly by university students in Tehran and other major cities has once again ignited passionate calls for democracy and the rule of law and human rights. Pro-reformists, liberals, journalists and several clerics have challenged the mullahs who act as God's emissaries. All this is happening at a time when the US has expressed its full support for pro-democracy forces inside Iran and sided with both the UN atomic energy agency and the EU to curtail the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear programme.


It began unexpectedly. On Tuesday, June 10, 2003, many of the LA based television and radio stations run by exiled Iranians had their regular programming interrupted by some "good news". It was already Wednesday in Iran and the situation was portrayed as "indescribable". Soon all lines were besieged by frantic callers, many of them self-appointed reporters in the streets of Tehran.

The excitement in their voices was infectious as they described how a small student protest against proposed university privatisations had turned into a mass protest by thousands of ordinary people flocking to the campus to chant slogans. "We want freedom," they shouted, "Down with the dictator! Long live students!"

Other reports described the massive traffic jams as hundreds of cars headed towards the focus of the unrest. When security forces blocked their way, many drivers took to blaring their horns to show their contempt for the Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and President Khatami for his failed promises and impotence.

In a country rife with high unemployment and a growing frustration with strict Islamic laws the protests appeared unplanned and no specific leader emerged to lead it. Nevertheless when the student crowds reached an estimated 3,000 strong police and vigilantes who support the Supreme Leader moved in to crush the revolt. "We will show them no pity," Khamenei told his fanatical supporters.

For the next two days hundreds of demonstrators were beaten and arrested with a brutality reminiscent of the 1999 failed student uprising whose fourth anniversary will be held on 9th July.

The authorities blamed "US-backed hooligans and monarchist elements" for the troubles and downplayed their importance. But the demonstrations continued and soon spread to Tabriz, Isfahan, Ahvaz and Shiraz where one person was killed in mysterious circumstances.

By Friday the violence had taken a sinister turn when hundreds of pro- Khamenei "thugs" on motorcycles (armed with knives and machine-guns) roamed the university campus chasing students through the hallways of three dormitories. Digital photos taken by dissidents and emailed to opposition web sites showed pools of blood strewn against the walls and floors with shocking effect.

On several occasions members of the public opened their doors to harbour protestors often taking the blows themselves. In one case vigilantes stormed a house and beat up a family of five including an eight-year-old boy who was kicked in the head after being dragged out of a closet where he had sought refuge.

The next day, over a hundred students were injured with one stabbed in the heart and 50 taken to hospital. As the news captured world headlines the Tehran authorities tried to calm the situation by arresting Saeed Asgar, a leader of the vigilantes.

Reaction in Washington and London towards the unfolding events appeared uncertain and at times contradictory. President Bush praised the Iranian protests as a "positive development". Speaking over the weekend in Maine he said, "This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran".

In Britain, Foreign Minister Jack Straw urged Iran to allow stricter checks of its suspicious nuclear program which the EU and the US believe is a guise for developing nuclear bombs, but warned the world to let Tehran manage pro-reform protests by itself.

Many Iranians opposing the theocratic regime were outraged by Straw's insistence that Britain's "constructive engagement" with the mullahs was slowly bearing fruit. He also urged "non-interference" by outside forces so that the Iranians could "sort out their opposition internally".

The cautious line by Britain was reflected in most of the country's press and media which contrasted with a more aggressive one by its ally the United States which applauded the student protests as a fight for freedom by the Iranian people.

Some Iranian exiles have criticised the British position as hypocritical and an insult to the Iranian freedom movement. Only a few days earlier, Michael Thomas, the DTI's Iran consultant announced that it would be a "great mistake" to reverse the policy of engaging the mullahs when the two countries were on the brink of a trade bonanza. Britain's exports currently worth £1 billion could double, he said.

Later this summer, the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, is expected to host a business conference in London to discuss the financial future of the Islamic republic of Iran. Some student activists have threatened to boycott the event.

In France, over 1,300 police raided the offices of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq accused of links to terrorism, rounding up it leader, Maryam Rajavi, and 165 members. It is not clear whether the raid was part of a deal with Tehran or aimed at dismantling the organisation because of its connections with Saddam's ousted regime.

After many days of demonstrations in Iran more than 250 dissident intellectuals and clerics mounted an unprecedented challenge to the ruling mullahs, all but accusing them of heresy by portraying themselves as God's emissaries on earth. One parliamentarian bravely denounced the crackdown on the students as "worse than the Mongols" a reference to the historical invasion of Persia.

Reports from Iran spoke of many young people taken to detention centres and forced to recant their "bad behaviour". Among those arrested was the sister and brother-in-law of Amir Abbas Fakhravar, an Iranian pro-democracy activist serving an eight year prison sentence in the notorious Qasr Prison. There was no news about the whereabouts of the couple's one year old child. Amnesty International was monitoring these developments with grave concern.

Political analysts warn of further acts of civil disobedience in the weeks leading up to the July 9th. Underground student organisations have vowed to continue their fight for a secular democracy. "Their determination is frightening," one diplomat admitted. The clerical regime is hoping to show a united front against the intense pressure applied by the neo-conservative Bush Administration.

Meanwhile in Shiraz, a city always famed for its roses and poets, the inhabitants mourned the young man believed to have been killed by security forces. In California, home to a million Iranian exiles, Persian television and radio urged their fellow compatriots to send flowers to the slain student's parents. The name of the activist who died crying for freedom was Parham Vatankhah.

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By Cyrus Kadivar




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