By Rupen Savoulian
For the last two weeks, in the largest demonstrations in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, students in Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and other major cities have demanded the resignation of the police chief and greater democratic rights in the country.
According to the World Federation of Democratic Youth, Iranian students and youth have for several weeks been spearheading a major campaign for human and democratic rights. Their target has been the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is not elected but controls the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry and the media. The demonstrators gave critical support to President Khatami, who was elected in 1997 on a promise to increase political and social freedoms.
The protests swelled after police stormed a Tehran University hostel on July 8 following a small protest the night before over the banning of the liberal newspaper Salam. The newspaper had attempted to expose the involvement of ultra right-wing elements in the regime in a string of assassinations of opposition figures last autumn.
The attack on the hostel, apparently carried out with the government's permission, resulted in at least one student being killed and 20 injured.
More clashes broke out that evening at the university when hundreds of students tried to march into the city centre. Police blocked their path on the main street outside the campus.
The protesters began lobbing stones and the police opened fire. Three more students died, scores of young people were hospitalised and hundreds were arrested. The university's chancellor and the minister of higher education resigned in protest at the regime's actions.
The demonstrations swelled to thousands over the next few days, fuelled by government statements that "unauthorised" demonstrations would "not be tolerated" and by attacks on the students by rightist vigilantes, members of the fundamentalist Hezbollah, the Party of God. The Hezbollah are used by the Tehran regime as "shock troops" to intimidate and terrorise political opponents.
In response, both Ayatollah Khamenei and President Khatami issued statements condemning the demonstrations. Government spokespeople warned that those arrested for defying government bans would be tried as moharaeb (people fighting God) and mofsed (people spreading corruption). Both offences are punishable by death.
Tens of thousands of Islamic fundamentalists took to the streets outside Tehran University on July 14 in a "unity rally" called by the clerical establishment and moderate politicians to condemn pro-democracy student demonstrators. In contrast to the brutality meted out to students, this rally was officially sanctioned and given blanket coverage on state radio and television.
Exiled Iranians demonstrated in London, Paris, Oslo and Copenhagen in support of the pro-democracy movement. They emphasised that the repression and murder of the students is another sign that the clerical regime cannot be reformed.
A representative of the Organisation of Tudeh Youth of Iran said: "We are witnessing the beginning of a total clamp down on freedom of expression on the part of the right-wing senior clerics in anticipation of the general election next March. These people won't stop at anything to hang on to their eroding power base."
The demonstrators have asserted that none of Iran's ruling factions represent the people and pledged to continue their struggle until the clerical dictatorship is overthrown.