By Martin McLaughlin
14 July 1999
The biggest opposition demonstrations since the 1978-79 Iranian
Revolution erupted in Tehran and other cities over the weekend of July
10-11. The protests were touched off by the passage of a new law
further restricting press freedom, and then the order July 8 by the Special
Clerical Court banning the liberal newspaper Salam. The newspaper was
shut down for violating security laws by publishing information last winter
on the murder of dissident intellectuals by Intelligence Ministry agents.
When hundreds of students gathered July 9 in a dormitory at Tehran
University to protest the closure of Salam, they were savagely attacked
by police and by members of an Islamic fundamentalist militia, Ansar-e
Hezbollah, which had been mobilized for that purpose. Dozens of
students were injured and more than 100 arrested, while estimates of the
death toll ranged from one to eight. Several students were thrown out of
second- and third-floor windows and others were severely beaten with
clubs and meat cleavers. Students arrested in the raid and later released
said they had been tortured.
The reaction to this atrocity was an explosion of protest throughout the
student population of Tehran and then nationally, which has surprised and
frightened the ruling Islamic clergy. Thousands of students marched on
Saturday and Sunday on the Tehran University campus, and some
10,000 students and staff participated in a peaceful sit-in on Monday.
On Monday evening police cordoned off the university and, with the
assistance of Ansar-e Hezbollah thugs, swept through the campus,
driving out the entire student population, in an effort to suppress all
protests. Dozens of students were taken to the hospital with injuries.
Tehran's governor issued a ban on all demonstrations, issuing a statement
which decreed: "No group or organization will be given a permit for a
rally or protest march and any protest march is illegal."
The response to these repressive measures was an intensification of the
protests. Crowds as large as 25,000 gathered at various points in the city
Tuesday in defiance of the ban on demonstrations, and for the first time,
townspeople joined a movement which had been largely confined to
students. In some cases protesters attacked the police with sticks and
stones, set fire to police vehicles, set up barricades and smashed shop
windows. Demonstrators attacked television camera crews, believing
them to be working for the state-controlled media.
Police repeatedly fired tear gas canisters and emptied revolvers into the
air to scatter crowds of demonstrators, while helicopters swept over the
streets broadcasting orders to disperse over loudspeakers.
Meanwhile protests spread to a dozen or more cities throughout the
country, including Tabriz in the northwest, Shahrud and Gilan in the north,
Khorramabad and Hamadan in the west, Yazd, Shiraz and Mashhad. A
seminary student and member of an Islamic militia was shot to death
during violent clashes with demonstrators in Tabriz on Sunday. Iranian
state radio claimed that a member of the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq
organization had been arrested in the shooting.
As the demonstrations grew larger and more militant in Tehran, they also
became politically bolder. For the first time since the 1979 Revolution,
signs and slogans openly criticized the supreme Islamic authority in the
country, the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is illegal to publicly criticize Khamenei, but students chanted "Down
with the dictator!" and "Commander-in-chief, resign," as they marched.
At a Tehran University demonstration, students booed down the reading
of a message of condolence from Khamenei for the deaths during the
The Islamic regime has been in deepening political crisis since the election
of President Mohammed Khatami in May 1997. Khatami won a
landslide victory over the more conservative cleric backed by Khamenei,
but under the constitution of the Islamic Republic his powers are limited
to the management of economic development and social services, while
Khamenei controls the courts, police, military and state-run media, and
his supporters hold a large majority in the country's legislature.
Over the past two years a subterranean conflict has been fought within
the ruling clergy, between those like Khatami who favor a relaxation of
strict Islamic rule and concessions to foreign, and especially European
capital, and those around Khamenei, who opposed such changes.
In the course of this conflict, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri,
clerical opponent of Khamenei, was placed under house arrest. Tehran
mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi was jailed on corruption charges in
what was widely seen as a political attack on Khatami by hard-line
opponents. Most recently, Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajarani
narrowly avoided impeachment on charges of "corrupting Islamic values."
The attack on the student dormitory has become the latest incident in the
factional struggle. Khatami and his supporters immediately sought to
capitalize on popular sympathy with the victims of the police attack.
Higher Education Minister Mustafa Moin and the University of Tehran
Chancellor Mehdi Khalili Araqi resigned to protest the violence.
Senior ministers toured the dormitory complex and condemned the police
raid, and on Saturday the Supreme National Security Council met under
Khatami's chairmanship and ordered the dismissal of Tehran police chief
General Sadat Ahmadi and his deputy for ordering the attack.
But as the protests became more explosive, Khatami sought to defuse
them. He issued a statement Monday praising the "restraint" of the
majority of students and appealing, "students should cooperate with the
government and allow law and order to be established in society."
For his part, Ayatollah Khamenei broadcast a speech in which he blamed
the unrest on outside "enemies," mainly in the United States. He
condemned the police attack on the student dormitory and urged both his
supporters and the students to refrain from violence. But he rejected
demands that the national police chief, General Hedeyat Lotfian, be
removed from office as well as the local Tehran officials.
All factions of the clerical regime are concerned that the student
movement can become a detonator for the mounting social tensions in
Iran, as similar protests against the Shah touched off the mass movement
in 1978-79. More than half of Iran's 70 million people were born after
1979 and have grown up knowing no other regime than that of the
Islamic Republic, which has failed to deliver on the popular hopes of
economic growth and social justice.
Iran's economy is in dire straits, under the combined impact of the
long-term slump in world oil prices, the US orchestrated trade embargo,
and the destruction and sacrifices caused by the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Thursday will be a test of strength for the opposition movement. Student
groups called for July 15 to be a national day of mourning for the
students killed in the protests. The Islamic Propagation Organization, an
arm of the ruling clergy, called for massive pro-Khamenei demonstrations
the same day.