Iran protests met with beatings, tear gas as Green Movement adopts new methods

Iran protests by pro-democracy advocates on National Student Day were attacked by security forces on Monday. The country's Green Movement has found new ways of organizing and keeping its message alive.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    This photo, taken by someone not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, shows an anti-government Iranian female student wearing a green scarf, the symbolic color of opposition during a protest at the Tehran University campus Monday.
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In Iran, riot police clashed with thousands of protesters Monday in the latest round of demonstrations, which took place despite a concerted six-month effort by Iran's security services to stamp out the opposition Green Movement.

Witnesses said that at Tehran University, just one of several flashpoints in Tehran and other cities marred by violence, police used tear gas and batons, and plainclothes agents wielded electric stun-guns against students and other demonstrators throwing stones. Protesters chanted slogans against the security forces and "Death to the dictator"; passersby were beaten with batons in alleys off the main streets.

Iran specialists say the persistence of the protests in the face of powerful counter-measures from the regime indicates that politics in Iran has irreversibly changed.

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"This is not a revolution, this is the commencement of a civil rights movement," says Hamid Dabashi, a prolific historian of Iran at Columbia University in New York.

Hard-line Iranian officials had warned they would "mercilessly" counter any attempt to hijack National Student Day — traditionally a regime-sanctioned day of anti-American protest, which commemorates the death of three students during anti-US demonstrations in 1953.

Basiji militiamen masquerading as students flooded into Tehran University and "took control of the main gate from inside," reported one source in Tehran. He said that security forces want to hit them "hard" and intimidate other potential activists prior to more significant protest dates later this month.

Scores of student leaders were arrested or expelled in the days leading up to the event, Internet service was slowed to a crawl or cut off, and foreign media were told to stay in their offices, their press cards for street reporting revoked for three days. Cellphone coverage and even pay phone lines near universities were severed.

Facebook used against protestors?

Despite that clampdown, Facebook, Twitter, and Iranian networking sites, which are normally closed down or restricted, were restored — perhaps to encourage sharing of information about the protests.

"They want to show that they can trace people, hunt them down. This would bring more fear," says the source in Tehran. "If you catch people on the spot, so what. But if you trace them, go to their doors tomorrow, that will scare [people]. Big Brother is watching you all the time."

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest for weeks after June 12, crying fraud over an election that gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term. Scores died, thousands were arrested, and Iran's top religious official Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei said not accepting the results was the "biggest crime."

Harsh tactics and allegations of rape and torture in prison have now limited large public protests to days when the Islamic Republic celebrates national or religious holidays with its own marches.

Key leaders of the opposition Green Movement, such as former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who himself declared victory in the June vote, have hardly been seen in public in recent months.

"A great nation would not stay silent when some confiscate its vote," Mr. Mousavi said in a statement posted online on the eve of the Monday protest.

"Dear brothers of ours!" Mousavi told security forces, according to a translation on enduringamerica.com. "If you are not getting anywhere with your enormous efforts ... perhaps you have mistaken the battlefield. You fight people on the streets, but you are constantly losing your dignity in people's minds.... Even if you silenced all the students, what are you going to do with the reality of the society?"

'A civil rights movement'

On Sunday night, protesters chanted allahu akbar (God is great!) from rooftops in Tehran, which had not been heard since the last significant street protests on Nov. 4.

Prof. Dabashi says the protesters' activities constitute not a revolution that will lead to a dramatic finale, but rather a persistent civil rights movement similar to that led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the US during the 1950s and 1960s.

"If in the US and Europe they are expecting any statue to fall, any wall to crumble, they will be disappointed. But if we think of this as the functional equivalent of the civil rights movement, we will have an infinitely more accurate conception of what is happening."

He also says there is a limit to the level of violence hard-liners can employ. "They are very strong. They are very entrenched," he says. "But precisely because they are not facing an armed uprising.... there is only a level to which they can degenerate, turning their arms against their own brothers and sisters."

Students from the Amir Kabir University put out an online statement calling for greater attendance: "We are asking all people to come to universities so we can have one voice to protest at the coup d'etat."

New organization techniques

At Sharif University, students marked the anniversary by staging a symbolic funeral for the three students who died in 1953, protesting against the visit of then-US Vice President Richard Nixon soon after a CIA-orchestrated coup toppled the popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

While Monday's protests focused on students, they were the largest in months. Efforts by security forces to arrest student leaders did not appear to work — partly because of new organization techniques developed since June.

"Communication is all through [personal] networking — they have adjusted so that they do not make decisions as a single group," says Ali Akbar Mousavi-Khoeini, a former prominent member of Iran's strongest student organization who moved to the US earlier this year.

"They have changed to do networking activities, so that decisionmaking is not longer taking place at a top level," says Mousavi-Khoeini. "The decisionmaking process has changed to avoid having to meet and vote."

Conservaties decry 'political obstinacy'

Former presidential candidate and parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi also spoke out, in an interview published Monday in the French newspaper Le Monde.

"Repression is not at all the solution, neither today nor tomorrow," said Karroubi, whose charges of rape and abuse in prisons have shaken Iran's Islamic system of government. "The solution to arrive at is tolerance and acceptance of criticism. We need to restore trust between the authorities and the people," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Conservative members of parliament called on opposition leaders to drop "behavior that smells of political obstinacy," according to a report on the official news agency IRNA. They had "ample proof the reformists wanted to substitute the Islamic regime with a secular democracy."

Television news reports on state-run TV on Monday portrayed past images of unrest and stated that those trying to detract from the anti-US nature of National Students Day were "enemies."

Roshanak Taghavi contributed from Washington.

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