TEHRAN, Iran – Tens of thousands of students, many shouting “Death to the Dictator!” and burning pictures of Iran’s supreme leader, took to the streets on more than a dozen campuses Monday in the biggest anti-government protests in months.
Riot police and pro-government Basij militiamen on fleets of motorcycles flooded Tehran’s main thoroughfares, beating men and women with clubs as crowds of demonstrators hurled bricks and stones. Some protesters set tires and garbage cans ablaze.
“Death to the oppressor, whether it’s the shah or the leader!” the students chanted, according to witnesses – making a daring comparison between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the pro-U.S. shah, despised in Iran since his overthrow in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The protests reflected how university students – the driving force of the 1979 revolution – have revitalized the anti-government movement even as mainstream opposition politicians struggle to dent the power of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s clerical leadership.
Inside the walled campus of Tehran University, fistfights broke out between protesters and hard-line students loyal to the government. In one photo obtained by the Associated Press, a student wearing a green headband – the opposition’s signature color – had blood streaming down his face after a beating. In another, a young woman, overcome by tear gas, slumped to the ground, as two other students tried to help her.
Journalists working for foreign media organizations, including the AP, have been banned from covering opposition protests, including Monday’s demonstrations.
A fierce government crackdown crushed gigantic protests by hundreds of thousands that erupted immediately after June’s disputed presidential elections, which the opposition says Ahmadinejad won by fraud. The wave of arrests swept up not only protesters but also many pro-reform politicians and activists, deeply damaging the movement.
Monday’s mass mobilization was unlikely to mean a new wave of more frequent protests – activists say escalation remains difficult under the crackdown. But the large turnout showed that even months of intense arrests and intimidation have failed to stamp out the movement.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi declared the clerical establishment was losing legitimacy in the eyes of Iranians.
“A great nation would not stay silent when some confiscate its vote,” said Mousavi, who claims to be the real winner of the June 12 election.
Thousands of riot police, Revolutionary Guard forces and Basij militiamen surrounded Tehran University beginning at dawn, vowing to prevent any unrest from spilling out into the streets.
Cell phone networks were shut down, and police and members of the elite Revolutionary Guard surrounded entrances, checking IDs to prevent opposition activists from entering, witnesses said. Authorities also slowed Internet connections to a crawl in the capital to stifle activists’ communications. Still, large crowds massed in the streets.
Monday’s protests were the largest in months – far bigger than the last major rallies on Nov. 4. The opposition has begun timing its marches to coincide with significant national events to help drum up a crowd. Monday’s protests were held on National Students Day, when student rallies are traditionally held.