Published June 17, 2003
TEHRAN, Iran – Police and pro-clerical militants attacked anti-government demonstrators in a town outside the capital Tuesday, and reformers warned that new, stronger protests will erupt if Iran (search)'s Islamic rulers ignore the people's demands.
The capital Tehran (search) and other cities saw wild clashes last week as pro-government forces put down student-led protests demanding an end to clerical rule. Those protests have largely died down in the past few days.
About 300 people demonstrated in an eastern neighborhood of Tehran on Tuesday. But they dispersed after anti-riot police and militants gathered.
In Gohardasht, about 25 miles to the west, some 700 demonstrators were attacked by anti-riot police and militants, a witness said.
"Fierce clashes are going on here. Around 400 anti-riot police and vigilantes are beating up protesters and taking them away in buses," the witness said on condition of anonymity.
Last week's protests, the largest in months, began with students demonstrating against plans to privatize universities and snowballed into broader displays of opposition to Iran's clerical establishment, led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search).
The protests largely stopped after a large security deployment and the unleashing of hard-line thugs to attack the protesters.
The Bush administration -- whose comments in support of the protests have angered Iranian officials -- condemned the crackdown.
"We're alarmed about the reports about the arrests and the provocations that the Iranian regime has taken against the protesters," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday the Iranian people were dissatisfied. "We are not out there inside Iran fomenting them," Powell said. "But if people wish to demonstrate peacefully and demonstrate for their rights and a better life, that seems to us a proper thing to do."
The Iranian government has accused Washington of interfering in its internal affairs -- and some opponents of the regime also say the U.S. comments don't help their cause.
Reformist lawmaker Fatemeh Haqiqatjou said she and 200 other reformists signed a statement Tuesday against the U.S. comments. "Iranians want change and that change has to be brought by Iranians themselves, not foreigners," she said. "America's involvement only undermines the slow pace of reforms in Iran."
But she and other reformers said protests would likely erupt again unless the hard-line clerics agree to democratic change.
"Bigger and stronger protests are unavoidable if the political leadership continues to ignore demands that the Iranian people have voted in many elections," said university professor Fayaz Zahed.
Haqiqatjou said the protests meant Iranians are losing hope of getting their demands implemented peacefully through reform politicians, who have swept elections since 1997 and control parliament and the presidency.
"Unelected hard-liners have kept undermining the process," she told The Associated Press. "That has led to growing public disillusionment with the ruling establishment."
"Nobody organized the protests," she said. "It was a genuine development that may turn into louder voices in the future."
Khamenei has the last word in all affairs in Iran, and hard-line clerics control unelected bodies, the military and security forces and the judiciary.