by Ramin Mostaghim
(IPS) TEHRAN --
student protests, the largest in months, reflect the uncertainty that many young people feel about their future under the country's clerical leaders, many Iranians observers say.
But in a message broadcast on state television Thursday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the unrest was being fueled by the United States -- which has been accusing Tehran of sheltering terrorists, interfering in Iraq and developing nuclear weapons -- and foreign satellite television channels.
State-run media say the protests that began on the night of June 10 by some 200 students from the Tehran University were fueled by dissatisfaction about school issues that were misused by the "stooges" of foreign forces.
This was an apparent attempt to compare the current turmoil to the CIA-instigated riots in 1952 that led to the overthrow of the elected government of left-leaning Mohammad Mossadegh and the return to power of the pro-U.S. Shah Pahlevi.
This week's protests involving more than 1,000 people led to clashes between some protesters and vigilante-style groups supporting the government.
"Tanks, machine guns are no longer effective," "political prisoners must be released" are some of the slogans used by the protesters, along with chants against the conservative leaders accused of blocking political and democratic reforms.
The government would not have "any pity whatsoever for the mercenaries of the enemy," Khamenei warned.
Conversations with Iranians show that the sentiments behind the protests have been simmering for some time, and will continue to fuel more discontent.
"I think this sort of sporadic uprising will lead some day to the implosion of the whole system," says Mehrdad Meshkini, 40, who uses his private car as a taxi in the Iranian capital.
"They have the right to protest, there are no prospects for them and, meanwhile, they have nothing to lose," remarks Ali Akbari, a teller in a local bank.
Some students say they are unhappy with the government's decision to close university campuses in the week ahead of the fourth anniversary of the July 9 student protests -- in order to prevent anti-government rallies from being held.
Those rallies four years ago, led by Tehran University students, were sparked by the banning of the 'Salam' (Hello) daily by judiciary decree. The 1999 protests grew to more than 1,400 people in less than three days, after different political groups joined in.
Those days were marked by clashes with police that were said to be the worst since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which led to overthrow of the pro-U.S.shah and takeover of power by the Islamic government of Ayatollah Khomeini. Hundreds of student protesters were killed by the shah's police before his fall.
The authorities have now called on students not to repeat the events of 1999. But students appear intent on marking the fourth anniversary, seen as a key point in the reform movement.
Some reformist figures say they are worried by signs of "extremism" among the youth, many of whom were born after the Islamic Revolution and find the pace of reforms -- including the opening of the political process and freedom of the press -- too slow.
The process has been deadlocked between reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his allies and Khamenei, who controls key levers of power in Iran such as the courts.
But still, Ebrahim Yazdi, secretary general of the religious-nationalist Azali (Freedom) movement and a supporter of Khatami, says: "We have already warned Khamenei that if drastic democratic changes are not introduced, not only the survival of the regime but also the territorial integrity of the country will be jeopardized."
He was referring to an open letter in May signed by 250 reformists, political and other figures addressed to Khamenei, calling for the pace of reform to be hastened. For people like Ruzbeh Ahmai, 22, reforms would mean a much brighter picture of the future, instead of a society that today has a 35 percent unemployment rate. Many also chafe against social restrictions carried out along what conservative leaders perceive as proper conduct in an Islamic society.
"When I graduate as an electronic engineer next year, there will be no vacancy for me," Admai says. "In any job interview, I will have to compete with hundreds of rivals, and then at the end of the day I will get an underpaid job without any prospects."
These frustrations are among those that came out in this week's protests, where complaints about the lack of freedom of the press were also rife.
"Once the protesting students took to the streets, they vented their anger against the banning of the reformist newspapers in the last four years. They chanted slogans against it," relates Mahsah Amiri, a 21-year-old student of French literature in Tehran university.
"Right after the riot started, several students came to me and said that they would invite me to make a speech at the Tehran University campus in the near future and guard me at any cost," Faribourz Reisdana, a dismissed professor of Marxism, says. "The students are determined to go ahead."
He thinks there is certainly social trouble looming ahead. "I am sure this situation will end up in implosion, but I do hope and wish it will be a non-violent one with minimum bloodshed," he adds.
Even some conservative politicians seem to think the current protests will not be the last. "Social upheaval one way or another is inevitable and in less than one year on different occasions, riots will occur," remarks Mahmoud Kashani, a legal expert with the Iranian Bar Association and two-time presidential candidate in the nineties.
Yazdi however says that although there will be unrest, "They will not lead to the collapse of the regime. As four years ago, the riots did not cause the toppling of the regime."
The last big student rallies occurred last year, when students protested the sentencing to death -- since reversed -- of a reformist university lecturer who had questioned the role of clerics in Iran.
Ali Mohammadi of the government's Revolutionary Guard says that he expects more student action, but that these would not be effective.
"Keep the student uprising on until the whole regime topples is the agenda of the Iranian opposition groups within and without the country, instigated by their lackeys in and outside of Iran," he says. "But we will crack down on them and give a good lesson to these U.S. mercenaries," he said.
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