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Thousands rally across Iran against government

Security forces unable to curb campus protests

Hard-line and reform students scuffled during demonstrations at the Tehran University campus in Iran yesterday. The demonstrations, marking National Students Day, received international coverage despite a government ban on foreign media. Hard-line and reform students scuffled during demonstrations at the Tehran University campus in Iran yesterday. The demonstrations, marking National Students Day, received international coverage despite a government ban on foreign media. (Associated Press)
By Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times / December 8, 2009

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BEIRUT - Campuses across Iran erupted in protests yesterday, as tens of thousands of college students clashed with security forces armed with clubs and tear gas in a forceful round of antigovernment confrontations.

The daylong protests, the largest demonstrations against the Tehran regime since the summer, took place in an unprecedented number of cities and towns and followed weeks of warnings by security officials.

And they continued despite harsh but nonlethal measures taken by uniformed and plainclothes security forces arrayed on streets and inside campuses.

Besides Tehran, demonstrations broke out in ethnic Kurdish and Azeri regions that often have clashed with the government but thus far had been relatively quiet in the election protest movement.

The demonstrations, marking National Students Day, received international coverage despite a government ban on foreign media and large-scale filtering of Internet sites and the shutting down of some telecommunications services.

Thousands of riot police, Revolutionary Guard forces, and Basij militiamen began to surround Tehran University at dawn yesterday to prevent any unrest from spilling into the streets. They sought to seal off the campus from view, draping the campus fence with signs bearing slogans from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Students were really brave,’’ said one Iranian journalist who covered yesterday’s events for the local reformist media. “They said all they needed to say today. The way ahead is long. But the goal is achievable.’’

Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, triggering a massive crackdown. But the movement borne of the election loss of Mir Hossein Mousavi appears to have grown more radical.

Fewer and fewer of the slogans were aimed at Ahmadinejad and more at Iran’s theocracy-based political system, a shift that could alienate potential opposition supporters but also further galvanize protesters and serve to destabilize the Islamic republic.

“Death to the oppressor, whether it’s the shah or the leader!’’ the students chanted, according to witnesses quoted by the Associated Press, implying a comparison between Khamenei and the pro-US shah overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“I take to streets to protest because I want change now, not tomorrow,’’ said one young female protester. “I am fed up with the current situation.’’

Some Iranian leaders appeared to recognize the risk that a large-scale grass-roots movement originally devoted to overhauling the government could become a hardened opposition dedicated to overthrowing it.

“A large number of people formed the majority in the elections and another large number of people the minority,’’ said Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a prominent cleric, according to the Iranian Students News Agency. “We should sit together and negotiate, and the precondition to that is the creation of a calm atmosphere.’’

State television and radio dismissed the protests. The Fars news agency, which is close to Ahmadinejad and the hard-line Revolutionary Guard, reported that 2,000 government activists took to the streets in Tehran for National Students Day, which commemorates a deadly 1953 crackdown on a protest against Iran’s former monarch.

But amateur video posted to the Internet showed thousands of antigovernment students chanting slogans and gathering on various campuses.

Credible reports of protests emerged from campuses in the central Iranian cities of Esfahan, Shiraz, and Kerman; in the eastern city of Mashhad; and in the western cities of Tabriz, Kermanshah, Hamedan, and Ilam as well as in Rasht and Gilan along the Caspian Sea.

Witnesses and news agencies also reported numerous arrests and injuries. Among those arrested were Majid Tavakoli, a student leader who was hauled away after delivering a speech at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, and two Iranian journalists allegedly filming the protests, Iranian media reported.

Security forces refrained from using deadly force, perhaps to avoid repeating history. It was the monarchy’s slayings of protesters in 1977 and 1978 that helped build the momentum for Iran’s revolution.

National Students Day traditionally was marked by government rallies but has been co-opted by reformist student groups since a 1999 uprising.