Tehran, Nov. 19 (Reuters): Some 3,000 members of an Iranian hardline militia demonstrated today against pro-reform students who have staged strikes and sit-ins for more than a week for freedom of speech in the Islamic Republic.
The protest by the men and black chador-clad women of the Basij militia at Tehran University came as police tried to lock out thousands of reformist students from another campus in the capital and prevent them from holding a rally.
“We are ready, we don’t have tolerance any more,” said one Basij leader addressing the Tehran University meeting.
The pro-reform student protests, the biggest in Iran for three years, have heightened political tension at a time when moderate President Mohammad Khatami is gearing up to take on powerful conservatives who have frustrated his reform efforts.
Hundreds of hardliners clashed with reformist students yesterday in the first serious violence to erupt in 11 days of protests sparked by the death sentence on history lecturer Hashem Aghajari for questioning clerical rule.
Reformists accuse conservatives of trying to trigger clashes as a pretext for a crackdown and the arrest of top reformers. Hardliners say the students have insulted supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure.
“Our red lines are the leader and the leadership. We will not remain silent. Passing those red lines has a heavy price,” the Tehran University speaker said.
“Long live Khamenei,” the militia forces responded.
The hardline reaction came as some reformist student leaders were claiming victory after Khamenei stepped in to order a judicial review of the case.
But he also warned the reformist government and parliament to make up with the hardline judiciary or face “popular intervention”, commonly seen as referring to the Basij militia, a volunteer force answerable to the leader.
Basijis gathered at Tehran University, the scene of a large pro-reform student protest last week, echoed Khamenei's words.
“If the three powers are not able to solve the problem, I will use popular force,” they chanted.
Meanwhile across town, police locked some 2,000 pro-reform students out of another university for around two hours until the weight of numbers gathering on the streets outside obliged security forces to let them in.
In parliament, dominated by Khatami's allies, speaker after speaker spoke out against an assault on a reformist deputy by a hardline gang at the airport in the southern city of Ahvaz.