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Iran's angry young adults erupt in political protest

For five nights in a row, students and families vent frustration with pace of reform.

By Staff writer to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2003

After almost a week of protest, the violent demonstrations rocking the Iranian capital each night are limited in size and confined to less than a square mile. And they remain a leaderless expression of anger.

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But what started out as a paltry student demonstration is now loaded with significance for the future of the Islamic Republic.

Unlike the student demonstrations four years ago, say analysts in Tehran, these protests are tapping into an unexpectedly fierce determination by thousands of ordinary Iranians - many of them young, and some families with children in tow - who are frustrated with the slow pace of political change in Iran.

In the past, unelected clerics led by Iran's conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, were the target of protests. That's true again, with the first-ever public chants calling for the ayatollah's hanging. But now the reform-minded President Mohamed Khatami - whose widespread popularity during six years in office is ebbing, as reforms are systematically blocked - is also a target.

"It's scary talking to these people [the protesters]," says a seasoned political analyst reached by phone in Tehran, who asked not to be named. "There is such a determination in their eyes and their behavior. They are fearless; they are ready for combat. It's like [urban] warfare."

"They say: 'This is just the beginning, we have started it, and we are going all the way to the end,' " the analyst says. "But if you carry on the conversation, they have no idea about what the end should look like.... It is very dangerous."

In recent days, amid the din of supportive honking horns, some protesters have been matching violence meted out by vigilantes loyal to the regime with violence.

Police have issued warrants for a top vigilante, and for some militants who occupied a student dormitory. Scores of protesters have also been arrested, prompting the White House on Saturday to decry "the use of violence against Iranian students" and note that the US "supports their aspirations to live in freedom."

The clerical leadership blames the US - seen officially as the chief foreign meddler since the 1979 Islamic Revolution - for fomenting disorder. Iran's Foreign Ministry accused the US of exaggerating the scope of the protests by calling "a few individuals the voice of the people."

The US comments seem to be uniting hard-liners and reformists. Mehdi Karrubi, speaker of the reformist parliament, said that differences "among the children of the revolution are differences of taste but they are all united against the enemy...."

The US has made no secret of its desire for a new government in Iran. It accuses Iran of backing terrorism, pursuing nuclear weapons, harboring Al Qaeda, and encouraging anti-US forces in Iraq.

But polls have shown that some 90 percent of Iranians themselves want change, and that 70 percent want dramatic change - results that hard-line ideologues say are wildly inaccurate.

"It is going to be a long, hot summer," says Ali Ansari, the British author of "A History of Modern Iran since 1921: The Pahlavis and After." "We're not in a revolutionary situation, but Iran is a country with a long history of social protest, and the situation is incredibly fragile.

"What has been striking in the last year, is the rapidity of the collapse of social popularity of the regime," Mr. Ansari says. "People are no longer saying 'Tinker with the edges, and it will be OK.' People say: 'Let's get rid of them.'"