Entire regime is the target

Opposition in Iran is no longer directed at supporting one section of the theocracy against the other. The days of the regime are numbered, say Yassamine Mather and Chris Strafford

The 56th anniversary of the murder of three students by the shah’s security forces during vice president Richard Nixon’s visit to Tehran in 1953 may prove to be the last Students Day commemorated under the heel of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Hundreds of thousands of students, youth and workers took to the streets in protest against the regime and the barbaric repression meted out since the June elections. Though hard to confirm, the protests to mark Azar 16 (December 7 in the Iranian calendar) could be the largest since millions came out immediately after the rigged presidential poll. Demonstrations took place in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Arak, Karaj, Orumieh, Kerman, Rasht, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Kermanshah and Hamedan and there have been reports of soldiers protesting at Qom airbase. People taking part in the various actions carried Iranian flags, but without the Islamic Republic’s sign of Allah, showing that the movement is moving beyond the slogans of the ‘reformists’.

In preparation for these demonstrations the regime formed lines of police, Bassij paramilitaries and Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) around the universities, squares and monuments in the major cities, and foreign correspondents were warned to stay away from all protests. The authorities put up long drapes outside the main gate of Tehran University (at least 20 metres long and three metres high) to stop passers-by witnessing protests planned inside the campus. The government also attempted to limit internet access, with up to 50% of attempts failing to connect. However, the regime is simply unable to stop the flood of information that is now on hundreds of blogs, twitter and news sites. At one point the Bassij were seen frantically searching computer rooms at Tehran Polytechnic University in an attempt to stop pictures and videos coming out. Mobile phone networks were also shut down in central Tehran and restricted in other parts of the city, but still activists managed to spread news of the protests and relay information about road blocks and meet-up points. Once again the Iranian youth have shown the world that the state cannot keep a lid on protests and unrest.

Throughout the length and breadth of Iran students demonstrated. Even in small towns and cities far away from Tehran thousands took part. This was by far the biggest and most widespread student protest since the revolution in 1979. At Hamedan University, where there were heavy clashes between students and security forces, two students were thrown from the second floor by the Bassij - reports indicate that both sustained severe injuries. At Tehran Polytechnic University students broke down gates that the Bassij had locked to stop crowds outside the campus joining the student protestors. Students clashed with the police and managed to repel them for a considerable time. They were shouting, “Marg Bar Khamenei” (Down with Khamenei!), as the focus of popular anger shifts from Ahmadinejad onto the supreme leader and the entire Islamic Republic. At hospitals in the capital police with dogs prevented injured people from entering, arresting and beating those who looked like protestors.

In Amir-Kabir University students were also savagely beaten by security forces, and a prominent student leader, Majid Tavakoli, was arrested. At the Medical College in Tehran, Bassij thugs attempted to break up a demonstration and viciously assaulted several students - there were reports of people being badly injured at this demonstration too. At Razi University in Kermanshah militia and police had a massive presence, but failed to stop the student demonstration. At Sanati University in Isfahan student protests were attacked by security forces. Professors at Beheshti University joined with the 2,000-strong protest, to scenes of massive cheering and chants of ‘Death to the dictator’.

In Kurdistan students burned images of Ali Khamenei and the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. Here the protests were particularly focused on the murder of socialist fighter Ehsan Fattahian, who was executed on November 11. School students have also taken part in the demonstrations - at a high school for girls in Tehran the students gathered outside the gates chanting slogans.

There was heavy fighting across Tehran, with students at times getting the better of the security forces and militia. At Khaje-Nasir University Bassij carrying Hezbollah flags were attacked and thrown out by brave students. Outside Tehran University, in the streets approaching Enghelab Square and Valiasr Street security forces opened fire - it is not clear whether they were warning shots or aimed at the crowd, but some reports claim that students were shot. It seems that around Enghelab Square the Bassij abandoned their positions and vehicles, which were swiftly used to form burning barricades by the youth.

There were also reports of security forces refusing to attack demonstrators and at times accepting drinking water from students who were calling for them to join the protests. In another significant development, it is said that riot police actually turned against the Bassij who were attacking demonstrators. If this wavering from security forces and the stories of soldiers’ demonstrations are confirmed, then this will certainly undermine the regime’s confidence in its ability to suppress protests and may possibly signal an acceleration of its collapse

Proving that the protests go far beyond the student movement, elderly women dodged bullets and tear gas to bring water, sandwiches and first aid to the student demonstrators. Some were set upon by militia. Wherever fighting was taking place, residents rushed to aid the students and young workers and many formed voluntary medical groups, helping the injured into nearby homes and distributing water to crowds. Many workers joined the demonstrations after finishing work, swelling the numbers in central Tehran and other cities.

Many students posting on social networking sites have been asking, ‘Where are the reformists?’ The mass movement still mobilises behind the green of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s presidential campaign, yet it seems he has abandoned the movement he helped stir up. Students across Tehran chanted: “Moussavi is an excuse: the entire regime is the target” - the ‘reformists’ have been made acutely aware that the movement is now far beyond their control.

Protests continued into the evening, with sporadic clashes between demonstrators and police. The state news agency put the total of arrests at 204, though the number was probably higher - many students were taken to undisclosed locations and denied contact with their family.

On December 8, as students arrived at Tehran University, Bassij and Pasdaran were waiting. Soon there were fresh clashes and tear gas was fired not just into the crowds demonstrating outside, but also into the campus itself. Later the Bassij entered the university and encountered fierce resistance. That day there were several other clashes across the country, involving tens of thousands of students.