Photographer Maziar Pourbeheshti was shaken as he logged onto his Facebook account in the early evening from his Tehran apartment. At the Tehran University campus Monday, he had witnessed teargas and beatings throughout a day of high drama. And when members of the Basij hardline morality militia tried to attack him and his friends, an unlikely savior came to their rescue.
“They tried to come in through the window but the dean with the help of campus security stopped them from entering,” Pourbeheshti said, writing from Tehran. “They went away and came back with a some of their comrades but still couldn’t get in so they broke the windows and left.”
At that point, one of Pourbeheshti’s friends was carried in by other students, covered in blood. “He claimed he’d been punched but it didn’t seem so from his bleeding, except if they’d been wearing a knuckle duster,” Pourbeheshti wrote.
This was just one of many violent scenes witnessed in Iranian cities today as the opposition movement took advantage of another date in the Islamic Republic’s calendar of state-orchestrated demonstrations to take to the streets and protest.
Amateur videos emerging from Iran showed hundreds of students singing nationalist songs as they marched through Tehran University. In the streets around the university, crowds fled security forces.
Police and Revolutionary Guard riot units stepped back and allowed university and neighborhood-based Basij militias to take the lead in repressing today’s protests. Some 2,000 Basij militants had camped out in the university since Sunday on the pretext of a major religious holiday. But despite strict identification controls at entry points to the campus and the arrest of up to 100 student leaders in a recent sweep, the university filled with student groups shouting for reform.
Repeated threats by the government that it would disperse protesters violently alongside an ongoing campaign of arrests and intimidation contributed to a lower turnout than on previous occasions when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators shouted and clashed with police in Tehran’s streets and squares. With the exception of a few blocks around Tehran University, the streets of the Iranian capital were mostly quiet.
“There is no governmental or public parade on Student Day, unlike Ghods (Jerusalem) Day for instance,” wrote Kooshyar Haghighi, a student activist, in an email. “So the government had more excuses and an easier time in suppressing the protesters.”
Student Day commemorates the killing by the Shah’s security forces in 1953 of three Tehran University students protesting against U.S. President Richard Nixon’s policies. But the occasion has been claimed by Iran’s vocal student reformist movement since 1999, the date of the last student uprising against the Islamic Republic.
Another Tehrani reached by telephone described how many of her friends had taken advantage of a three day holiday declared by the government for all school and university students and headed to the Caspian Sea for parties.
“One thing though has been miscalculated,” she said. “The economic situation which [is so bad] it does not permit people to get away.”
Aside from Tehran, there were also clashes in cities with large university populations around central and northern Iran and the Caspian littoral. At Mashhad University in northern Iran, demonstrators reportedly broke down the gate but, instead of exiting into the streets where security forces were waiting, they drew bystanders chanting slogans into the campus.
Slogans veered from the humorous to the unsayable in Iranian theocracy by calling for the death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Students chanted “Freedom of the mind cannot be achieved with beards” and brandished paper currency in the direction of Basij militiamen suggesting that their presence on the streets was more due to government subsidies than religious principle.
Without a regime-orchestrated demonstration to lose themselves in, the protesters were exposed to traps set up by the authorities since the previous night. Fire engines were arrayed outside Tehran University with their water canons pointing toward the complex, which had railings draped with posters of photographs and quotations by the Supreme Leaders. Trucks with open-air cages in the back waited to carry away detainees. Crowds gathered outside the university, linking up with the students inside in replying to chants of “Khamenei is a killer” with “His rule is failed.” One eyewitness described a pro-government militiaman brushing earth over bloodstains left by a detainee.
“It shows that the opposition has tremendous sustainability and persistence,” said Trita Parsi, the author of “Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.” “Six months after the elections they’re still out there in numbers large enough to deprive the Ahmadinejad government of any sort of normalcy.”
Opposition politicians Mir-hossein Mousavi and Hashemi Rafsanjani gave rhetorical support to protesters in comments circulated over the weekend. But speculation mounted that their absence on the streets today was due to their temporary house confinement by regime forces.
In a further sign that the regime is feeling threatened by the ongoing protests, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose reelection is disputed by protesters, and his minister of higher education did not deliver public speeches as is customary on Student Day. A cleric addressing another university in Tehran was shouted down by anti-regime protesters.
Government media continued to underplay the street violence. Several Revolutionary Guard-affiliated media focused on the activities of pro-regime students. In a story titled “Green supporters who swore and fled,” the hardline Fars News Agency painted opposition supporters as disruptive elements who interrupted the prayers of devout pro-regime students at Tehran University’s open-air mosque.
One veteran of the 1999 student protests commented that the “clashes inside Tehran University were unprecedented.”
Further public demonstrations are expected later in the month as the Shiite holy month of Ashura begins.