- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran — Hundreds of pro-cleric militants and state security forces fired bullets and tear gas and beat bystanders in Tehran late yesterday, the fourth and most widespread night of clashes in the Iranian capital.

Violence erupted in scores of locations throughout the capital, particularly in areas surrounding Tehran University’s dormitory complex, the scene of demonstrations against the country’s Islamic clerical regime that triggered the crackdown.

Witnesses said security officers fired tear gas to disperse crowds of hundreds of people, mainly curious onlookers in cars and doorways who had gathered to watch the heavy police presence throughout the city.

Hundreds of police had attempted to lock down Iran’s capital yesterday after three nights of protests and clashes between democracy supporters and militants aligned with Iran’s hard-line Islamic regime.

But automatic gunfire could be heard in the Iranian capital early this morning as hundreds of pro-clergy militiamen, some armed with assault rifles, attacked groups of people who continued to protest against clerical rule.

The initial demonstrations, targeting plans to privatize universities, have spiraled into days of denunciations of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s clerical regime.

Before the latest clashes, a tense calm had reigned over Tehran yesterday, where police lined streets leading to the dormitory housing Tehran University students who sparked this week’s first protests. Several dozen police entered the dormitory to prevent students from resuming any protests.

Hundreds of young Iranians, many in their teens, had taken to the streets late Thursday and early yesterday around Tehran University and a nearby hotel to denounce Ayatollah Khamenei and his regime.

Criticism of the supreme ayatollah is usually punished by imprisonment, and public calls for his death had been unheard of until this week.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s hard-line supporters — who control key government and security institutions in Iran — are locked in a power struggle with popularly elected reformist President Mohamed Khatami.

Public support for Mr. Khatami also appears to be falling because of his government’s inability to implement a number of promised reforms.

Exiled opposition groups have been encouraging dissent in Iran through U.S.-based Persian language TV channels. U.S. pressure on Iran, which Washington accuses of hiding a nuclear-weapons program and harboring terrorists, may have further emboldened those who hope to see the regime toppled.

The State Department Thursday praised the demonstrators, saying they were pointing up the failings of the undemocratic regime.

During a prayer sermon yesterday at Tehran University, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani — a key Khamenei supporter — urged Iran’s youth not to fall into what he described as a U.S. trap by denouncing the country’s political leadership.

“I advise the youth, especially students … that they should be careful not to fall into a trap dug … by the Americans,” Mr. Rafsanjani told worshippers.

Mr. Rafsanjani said it was Iran’s policy to “act resolutely” to prevent demonstrations from getting out of hand but “not to be harsh on protesters.”

While the recent protests seemed to be disorganized, with no clear leaders, some demonstrators vowed to keep up the pressure until next month’s anniversary of much larger and more violent protests in 1999.

“The protests are not expected to continue. Since the ruling establishment is not flexible, any protests create worries for the regime,” said leading reformist and university professor Fayaz Zahed.

“But these latest protests cannot create serious threats for the government because they are not organized.”

Ayatollah Khamenei this week warned of a major crackdown in a speech broadcast on state television and radio.

He referred to the violence in July 1999, when security forces and extremist supporters of hard-line clerics attacked democracy demonstrators after a student dormitory was stormed.

The raid led to the death of at least one student and generated the worst street battles since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“If the Iranian nation decides to deal with the [current] rioters, it will do so in the way it dealt with it on July 14, 1999,” the supreme cleric said.

“It should not be allowed that a group of people contaminate society and universities with riots and insecurity, and then attribute it to the pious youth,” he said.

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