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Iran Acts to Quell Unrest

The government tries to isolate and intimidate crowds demonstrating for an end to Islamic rule. Clerics accuse the U.S. of sabotage.

June 17, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — Iranian officials accused the United States on Monday of trying to exploit days of violent protests in Tehran to undermine the Islamic government, and deployed security forces around the streets of the capital in an effort to end the mayhem.

In the bright light of a nearly full moon, vigilantes set up checkpoints around most neighborhoods. Plainclothes security officials patrolled corners, and police cut off roads leading to universities in an effort to keep people away from potential hot spots. Cell phone networks around the university were shut down in what protesters said was a common government tactic to prevent them from coordinating their movements.

Unrest waned Monday night, after a weekend crackdown terrified students and ordinary Iranians alike into staying at home. But the atmosphere remained fluid.

In the late evening a boulevard in central Tehran appeared the picture of pedestrian normalcy, brisk with moving traffic. An hour later it was swarming with young people, and packed with cars simultaneously blaring their horns. Soldiers, many holding truncheons, looked on warily.

The government's precautions underscored its heightened sense of vulnerability after six days of violent demonstrations -- one of the longest waves of unrest Iran has witnessed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Although disorganized and sporadic, the protests mark the first time that large numbers of Iranians have taken to the streets calling for the end of the Islamic regime.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi blamed the United States on Monday for exploiting the recent unrest.

"The Americans seem to think that if some people in Iran hold demonstrations, that will prepare the groundwork for America's presence on the ground," he said at a news conference.

President Bush incensed Iranian officials the previous day with public praise for the protests.

"This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive," he told reporters on Sunday. Iran also regarded an earlier White House statement expressing concern at the violent assaults on protesters as meddling in its internal affairs.

Tehran lodged a formal complaint against the "glaring example of American interference" with the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran.

Asefi's comments reflect an edginess in Tehran over the prospect of powerful neo-conservatives in Washington pursuing regime change in Iran. Iranian officials believe the United States would quietly chart such a course by encouraging anti-government demonstrators and backing exiled Iranian opposition figures.

In their sermons, senior clerics regularly accuse the United States, which they still refer to as the "Great Satan," of trying to sabotage Iran's revolution. Those allegations are particularly convenient when the system faces intense internal strain.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that the United States endorsed demonstrations by Iranians "asking to join the modern world," but had no other involvement in the protests.

On the streets of Tehran, the protests seemed to have less to do with global politics than they did with the prospects of Iran's millions of young people.

"We can't take this anymore," said Mehrdad, a 19-year-old sitting in traffic amid the din of horns and crackling firecrackers with his parents, who had agreed to chaperon a visit to the site of an expected protest.

"I don't know what we want, but we don't want this," he said. Like most other young people, he declined to give his last name for fear of retribution.

The protests were ostensibly kicked off by a small demonstration on Tuesday against reported increases in university tuition.

During the past two years, anything from a lost national soccer match to trials of political prisoners has offered a pretext for an outpouring of deep discontent.

"We used to come out in support of Khatami," said Maryam, an art student, referring to Iran's president, moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami.

"Now we know he's just another mullah -- they all have to go."

Previously, students did not provoke clashes with police. This time, they came armed with backpacks full of rocks. Analysts here expect the protests to flare periodically, with a likely climax July 9, the anniversary of large student protests in 1999.

The protests reflect a slow decline in the public's perception of the legitimacy of the Islamic government since the 1997 election of Khatami.

Khatami promised to secure freedom of expression, promote tolerance and strengthen the rule of law -- reforms that were obstructed by hard-line clerics.

Khatami's most significant success has been helping the country shed its rogue image and partially re-integrate into the international community. But young people expecting more social freedom and political change have been disappointed.

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