Frustrations ran high in Tehran Tuesday, the sixth day of student protests over the passing of a tough press-censorship law and the closing of the pro-reform Salam newspaper. According to an Associated Press report, 10,000 students took to the streets to protest anti-reform measures of the conservative "hard-liners" in the Iranian government.
The protests, which began last Thursday, gained considerable momentum when police raided Tehran University dormitories on Friday and arrested, beat and killed students. By Monday, protests had spread to as many as thirteen cities in what the BBC called on Tuesday the "most serious unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution."
Since Friday's police action, protestors have called primarily for the resignation and punishment of Revolutionary Guard General Hedayat Lotfian, according to a member of the Iranian student-based Union's Solidarity Office, speaking to the Iran Press Service (IPS). While Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has condemned the police action, according to the BBC, he has not only been unwilling to meet the simple demand for Lotfian's arrest and seems to remain uncompromising in his refusal to meet the more general and far-reaching demands of the protestors.
Adding to the crisis, security forces controlled by Khamenei continue to react strongly to the protests. Widespread reports indicate the use of police clubs and tear gas. Students claimed several of their comrades were shot and beaten by security forces and pro-government vigilante groups, most notably the Ansar Hizbollah, according to the BBC. Tuesday, the pro-government Tehran Times called the protestors "extremists" and "rioters" and lauded the government's role in taking effective measures to quell the unrest.
But the government hysteria over the protests, evidenced by the police crackdown and direct attention from the Ayatollah himself, reveals the dangerous nature of the protests. The Iranian establishment no doubt remembers that student unrest was a primary ingredient in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. And in the present state of unrest the students appear to be increasingly galvanized in their protests. They have broadened their calls for reform from press freedom to a complete transfer of control of the security and intelligence forces from the religious hierarchy to the office of the president, currently occupied by reform-minded President Muhammad Khatami.
Given the history of the current government's establishment, the government must be wary that the protests do not spread further. The violent tactics employed to suppress the protests have only served to increase the intensity of the demonstrations and according to the Paris-based Iran Press Service (IPS), student leaders have broken a taboo by directly criticizing the Ayatollah himself.
Although threatened by the continued obstinacy of the protests, the government finds itself unable to make any serious concessions to the students. If fulfilled, the student demands would represent a serious abrogation of government power that could prove fatal to the current system of government, which has been in place since the 1979 revolution. While students have not clamored for an end to the Islamic government, demands for a transfer to the elected president of key ministries such as the press and the security forces represents an effective end to the political power of the government hierarchy.
At stake in Iran is no less than the very structure of the Iranian political system. Under the present regime -- which, according to a July 13 BBC analysis, lacks the charisma of the first Ayatollah who died in 1989 -- physical control of government ministries is crucial in maintaining power. Possibly the only hope then for an end to the protests, lies with Khatami, who has called for restraint, patience and a more moderate pace of reform.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at ivews.com