Iranian security forces break up protests in central Tehran

Amateur video reportedly shows thousands of protesters shouting "death to the dictator" outside Tehran University.
By Thomas Erdbrink
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

TEHRAN -- Iranian security forces and paramilitary groups broke up anti-government demonstrations in central Tehran on Monday, using clubs, tear gas and electric batons to disperse crowds outside the University of Tehran, witnesses said.

Authorities blocked main roads into the city center and arrested dozens of demonstrators who sought to turn Iran's annual "Student Day" rallies into the latest in a series of protests against the government that began about six months ago. Officials had declared such demonstrations illegal and threatened to meet them with force.

Despite the warnings, thousands of demonstrators tried to join students at sealed-off campuses of Tehran's main universities. Deployed to head them off were hundreds of riot police, Revolutionary Guard Corps troops and members of the Basij, a pro-government militia.

"I saw three middle-aged women being shocked by members of the Basij using stun guns," a witness said by telephone from a street near the university. "I ran away, but when I turned around, I saw them lying on the street, their bodies shaking because of the shocks." As he spoke, people could be heard screaming in the background.

Other witnesses reported battles outside the university gates, with protesters throwing rocks and setting fire to motorcycles and trash containers as riot police fought them with tear gas. Members of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, were seen using cellphones to coordinate their movements against the demonstrators.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that 7,000 pro-government students gathered inside the university, shouting slogans in support of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It said there were 50 "rioters" who "made trouble" on the sidelines of the gathering.

"The rally is underway with cries of "Death to opponents of the leader" and "God is great; Khamenei is the leader," the news agency said.

But cellphone video clips posted on the Internet also showed protesters shouting slogans against the supreme leader.

Passengers riding buses on Enghelab Street, which runs alongside the sprawling campus, joined in chants against the government as security forces beat people waiting at bus stops, witnesses said.

The crackdown appeared to limit the opposition turnout Monday, but several opposition Web sites said more demonstrations were planned during the upcoming 10-day Shiite religious festival of Ashura, which starts Dec. 18 and peaks on Dec. 27 in a commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, a Shiite martyr who was killed in battle in the 7th century.

Members of Iran's political establishment have warned that the continuing crackdown is radicalizing many of the protesters. Saying they fear for the nation's future, establishment political and religious leaders have called for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top officials to work out a compromise with their political opponents.

Adding his voice to that chorus Monday was Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, 85, an influential Shiite religious figure who lives in the holy city of Qom. In an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency, he urged the government to reach a deal with supporters of former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. "They are people of this country," he was quoted as saying. "We should sit down and negotiate."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company