Clashes in Iran echo '79 revolt

Street battles rage through capital

Khatami decries riots

Violence paralyzes Tehran


TEHRAN, Iran -- In scenes eerily reminiscent of Iran's revolution two decades ago, the police fired tear gas yesterday at thousands of demonstrators and passers-by and fired pistols and submachine guns into the air as street battles raged through the capital.

The chaos and violence closed hundreds of stores, banks, gas stations, shopping centers and office buildings and finally, even the vast bazaar in the south of Tehran.

The clogged streets were filled with fear and confusion as the worst unrest in the Islamic republic's history was countered by tens of thousands of uniformed and plainclothes security police, soldiers, anti-riot forces in shields and face-covering helmets, Revolutionary Guards, intelligence operatives, vigilantes wielding long green batons and ordinary street thugs.

The armed mobs fanned out from the area around Tehran University north and south for miles.

Security forces lobbed tear gas into crowds of innocent bystanders, and crowds in turn set fires in the middle of intersections. Some soldiers and military volunteers brandished automatic weapons, and gunfire cracked across the capital throughout the day.

Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, abruptly shifted his tone last night after meeting with the religious leadership. He condemned the nationwide demonstrations, which have left at least two people dead and countless others injured or behind bars since Thursday.

Khatami and other officials made it clear that no further protests would be tolerated. With a vast pro-government demonstration planned for today, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced the protests were over.

"From Wednesday on," he said, "security will be provided -- at all costs."

It was impossible to determine whether the violence in Tehran mirrored the situation around the country. After reporting widespread protests in 18 cities Monday, the official press suddenly fell silent yesterday on the demonstrations.

The form of the protest -- and the government crackdown -- reminded older Tehran residents of the year leading up to the revolution in February 1979. Even one of yesterday's slogans was borrowed from then: "Army brothers, why kill your brothers?"

No clear goal in riots

But in 1978 and 1979 there was a clear, single goal, articulated over and over: the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the installation of an Islamic government.

Then there were two sides: the monarchy's supporters and the monarchy's opponents. Now there are no clear sides. No one seems to know who on the street is in charge, who wants what and who is in whose camp.

The unrest erupted Thursday after students protested the passage of a law curbing press freedom and the closing of a popular left-leaning newspaper. Security forces stormed a dormitory at Tehran University that evening, beating students and pushing them out windows.

The students want faster progress toward democracy and cultural freedoms promised by Khatami, which have been blocked by conservative forces backing the religious leader and ultimate power in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But the students are not calling for a change in the Islamic system of government.

After urging restraint and respect for the law Monday, Khatami read a statement last night on state-controlled television saying that what had started out as a peaceful protest had degenerated into riots led by people with "devilish aims."

The protests, he added, were threatening national security and were "intended to attack the foundations of the system and lead the country into anarchy."

The president also pledged to stop the protesters. "We shall stand in their way," he said.

Limits of authority

The statement underscored the limits of Khatami's authority in a system that gives much more power to Khamenei, whose title is Leader of the Islamic Revolution, than to the popularly elected president.

Khatami's clear statement of disapproval for the demonstrations is likely to disappoint many ordinary Iranians, who saw both the demonstrations and the crackdown as the beginning of a process of change, even a change in the regime.

"Iranian people are not necessarily logical," said one engineer. "They are very emotional. They want an end to everything that they think has been a source of misery for them.

"It doesn't matter to them at what cost, or whether it's going to be followed by something much worse."

The level of criticism of the government underscores a deep frustration. Iran suffers from an economy in crisis, high inflation and unemployment, low investor confidence and the absence of personal security and many freedoms.

Sixty-five percent of the people are under 25, and they know little of the revolution and the sacrifices of Iran's eight-year war with Iraq.

But many of them do know the Internet and can watch U.S. television beamed in by satellite. They want jobs and freedom.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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