An Iranian opposition supporter gestures as she takes part in an anti-government… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beirut — Campuses across Iran erupted in protests Monday as defiant college students chanting anti-government slogans clashed with security forces armed with clubs in a forceful new round of confrontations over the nation's disputed June presidential election.
The daylong protests on National Students Day were not as large in Tehran as those that broke out in the days after the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But they took place in a larger number of cities and towns and followed weeks of ominous warnings by security officials. They continued through the day despite efforts by security forces arrayed on streets and inside campuses.
Outside Tehran, the first large-scale civil unrest since early November broke out in ethnic Kurdish and Azeri regions, which have often clashed with the Tehran government. Those areas had thus far been relatively quiet in the election protest movement dominated by middle-class urbanites.
The protests received wide international coverage despite a government ban on foreign media and large-scale filtering of websites and the shutting down of some telecommunications services.
"Students were really brave," said one Iranian journalist who covered the events for the local reformist press. "They said all they needed to say today. The way ahead is long. But the goal is achievable."
But the protest movement born out of the disputed election loss of former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi appears to have grown more radical. 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.
"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 of a grass-roots movement devoted to reforming the government becoming 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 Grand 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 as insubstantial. The Fars News Agency, which is close to Ahmadinejad and the hard-line Revolutionary Guard, reported that 2,000 pro-government activists took to the streets in the capital on the day designated to commemorate a deadly 1953 crackdown on a protest against Iran's former monarch.
"This year's demonstrations were more glorious than ever before," a presenter on state television declared.
But amateur videotape posted on the Internet showed thousands of anti-government students chanting slogans and gathering on various campuses around the country. 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 on the Caspian Sea.
Witnesses and Iranian news sources also reported numerous arrests, including those of Majid Tavakoli, a student leader who was hauled away after delivering a speech at Tehran's Amir Kabir University, and two Iranian journalists reportedly filming the protests for foreign television stations, Iranian media reported.
Iranian security forces had been cracking down in anticipation of the demonstrations, arresting student activists and warning others against taking to the streets to mark the 1953 protest during a visit by then-Vice President Richard Nixon. His trip followed a Washington-bankrolled coup d'etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and reestablished the absolute rule of monarch Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi.
The day was traditionally marked by pro-government rallies but has been co-opted by reformist student groups since a 1999 uprising. In the hours before Monday's protest, pro-government Basiji militiamen had been allowed to flood university campuses in an attempt to inhibit the protests.
Some students had vowed to turn the occasion into an anti-government protest, as activists have done during other recent state holidays. The protesters mobilized for weeks, plastering Tehran walls with placards and specifying routes and meeting locations in e-mails and on the Internet.
Opposition leader Mousavi, who lost to Ahmadinejad on June 12 in balloting critics described as rigged, called on followers to take part in Monday's protests.