By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
TEHRAN -- Iran intensified its crackdown on demonstrators Tuesday as thousands of pro-government militiamen stormed the grounds of the country's most prominent university and assaulted students who had gathered in protest.
Armed with steel clubs, electric batons, pepper spray and tear gas, members of the Basij paramilitary organization attacked several hundred students on the campus of the University of Tehran. Witnesses said the student protesters fought back, in some cases injuring members of the Basij, who fall under the command of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It was the second consecutive day of clashes between security forces and the opposition. But the show of force on Tuesday was particularly dramatic, and it appeared to signal that the government is determined to neutralize Iran's restive student community.
A relatively small but active group of students nationwide has challenged the government for many years, and it now forms the backbone of a grass-roots opposition movement. Nearly six months after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a disputed election, triggering the most intense demonstrations Iran had seen in decades, the protesters are again showing signs of gaining strength.
Although some Iranian officials favor a compromise with the protesters, others, many of whom were students themselves during the 1979 Islamic revolution, are calling for a harsher response.
"From now on, we will show no mercy" to protesters or their families, the government's chief prosecutor, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, said Tuesday. He added: "Intelligence and security . . . forces have been ordered not to give any leeway to those who break the law, act against national security and disturb public order."
Analysts say the country's top leadership is in a tight spot.
"If they suppress the demonstrations, using more violence, they will lose the support of the people," said Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a professor of sociology at the University of Tehran, who supports the opposition. "If they respond to the opposition's demands, they will lose their influence. Every option will hurt."
While on Monday thousands of demonstrators tried to join students at Tehran's main universities, the protests on Tuesday played out only inside the campuses. The semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is pro-government, estimated the number of anti-government demonstrators at 800 and said about 5,000 pro-government young people were clashing with them.
Witnesses said members of the Basij moved aggressively to put down any sign of protest.
"They broke the windows and cut some of us with the pieces of glass," said a student who gave only his first name, Hamed, and was interviewed by telephone. "We lit fires in front of the faculty's entrance, but they poured in and fights broke out in the hallways." Hamed said he was wounded on his face in the melee.
Local media reported that more than 200 people were arrested in Monday's protests. On Tuesday, Fars said that more than 80 of those arrested Monday had been freed.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, voiced concern that Iran is using force to suppress demonstrations and urged the Islamic republic to respect opposition supporters' right to voice their opinions.
"The suppression of protests is escalating -- it is much more serious," Pillay told the Reuters news agency in Geneva. She said a senior Iranian human rights official with whom she had scheduled a meeting for Tuesday abruptly canceled it.
Also Tuesday, Basij forces surrounded the office of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader whose defeat in June's disputed presidential elections helped spark the prolonged protests. The Fars News Agency referred to the Basij as "student revolutionaries" and accused student supporters of Mousavi of starting the violence.
"If you are on a mission to kill, beat or threaten me, go ahead," Mousavi said during a brief faceoff with members of the Basij, according to Kaleme.com, a pro-Mousavi Web site. He referred to the Basij as "mercenaries."
Kaleme.com said the paramilitary forces had also kept Mousavi from leaving Monday, when authorities blocked main roads into the city center and arrested dozens of demonstrators. The protesters had timed their rally to begin on Iran's annual Student Day, which commemorates the 1953 killing of three university students by security forces of the-then monarchy.