Tehran, June 11 (Reuters): Iranians demanding change staged their biggest protest in months today, chanting slogans against powerful Muslim clerics they accuse of limiting freedoms and the reformist government for failing to rein them in.
Some 3,000 protesters, many of them heeding a call from US-based Iranian exile satellite television, gathered near the Tehran University in support of a smaller, student protest against proposed privatisations in higher education.
Residents said the chants at the demonstration damning the country’s clerical leaders were the most extreme yet heard.
Uniformed and plainclothes police with batons broke up the protest. “About 80 of the rioters were arrested last night. These people, instigated by local radicals and foreign agents, chanted illegal slogans,” the ISNA student news agency quoted intelligence minister Ali Yunesi as saying.
Several motorcycles were torched and windows of some shops and a state bank were smashed as protesters dispersed.
“I would not be surprised if we see more of such protests in the future because the ground is ready,” one parliamentarian who declined to be named said. “Our society now is like a room full of gas ready to ignite with a small spark.”
The protest followed increasingly tough rhetoric aimed at Tehran from Washington which accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism.
US hawks have called for actions aimed at destabilising Tehran’s clerical rulers.
But diplomats cautioned that Iran’s student movement was fractured and disorganised and said the protests could quickly fizzle out.
“The usual response from the authorities is to crack down hard and that’s normally enough to send all but the most die-hard protesters home,” an Asian diplomat said.
Many in Iran have lost faith in moderate President Mohammad Khatami and his lack of progress in reforming the 24-year-old Islamic Republic in the face of strong opposition from conservatives in powerful positions.
“The slogans people chanted showed they don’t believe in the system at all and they are challenging the whole system, including Khatami,” the parliamentary deputy said.
“I heard the students had gathered from television,” said 46-year-old housewife Parvin. “I came here to send a message to (US secretary of state) Colin Powell that we want change.”
Powell told CNN on Sunday that Washington was working to persuade Iranians to force change from within to make Iran what he called a less troublesome member of the world community.
Iran’s foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi rejected the remarks. “Powell should know US interference would boost resolve and solidarity among Iranians,” newspapers today quoted Kharrazi as saying.
The US, which cut ties with Tehran after the 1979 revolution, has branded Iran part of an “axis of evil”.
High unemployment and frustration with Iran’s strict Islamic laws have fed discontent among the overwhelmingly youthful population, around 70 per cent of which is under 30 and has little memory of life before the revolution.
Analysts say the reformers have been further weakened by a resurgent hardline faction which is determined not to loosen its grip on power now that US troops are now on both the eastern and western borders of Iran, in Afghanistan and Iraq.