Iranian President Faces Continued Criticism Following Rare Student Protest

A day after Iranian students protested against hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, official response was muted Tuesday, but the country's independent press and students continued to criticize the president.

About 100 students participated in Monday's rare demonstration, chanting "Death to dictator" as Ahmadinejad gave a speech at Tehran University, prompting scuffles with hardline students, witnesses said.

The president faced a similar outburst during a speech in December when students at Amir Kabir Technical University called him a dictator and set fire to his picture.

Hoping to avoid a similar disturbance Monday, organizers imposed tight security, limiting access to people with invitations, a step the independent daily Hambastegi said triggered the protest.

Several independent newspapers and students criticized officials for barring people from the event, contrasting the measure with Ahmadinejad's willingness to take questions from students during a visit to Columbia University in New York last month.

The independent daily Etemad Melli published a large picture of the protesters on its front page carrying a sign with the slogan "We also have questions, why only Columbia?"

Milad Niazi, a student at Tehran Azad University, criticized the president for avoiding hard questions at home, saying "Supporters of Ahmadinejad praise his appearance at Columbia University as a heroic act, but they don't dare to let students appear in the speech hall."

Even the hardline Hezbollah newspaper, which criticized the protest, questioned the policy of preventing students from listening to Ahmadinejad.

"Allocation of special invitation cards and blocking students from attending the program was not expected from the government," said the paper in an editorial.

Government newspapers and those that support Ahmadinejad ignored the protests or only mentioned them in brief reports.

But some Ahmadinejad supporters, like student Reza Kameli, criticized his reformist contemporaries for attacking the president at a time of intense international pressure.

"The protesters are fifth column of the enemy," said Kameli. "They try to weaken the president as he is confronting the U.S. and its allies who try to jeopardize our country."

Many Western countries have pressured Iran to suspend a nuclear program they fear is cover for weapons development. The U.S. has also accused Iran of supporting Shiite militias in Iraq. Tehran denies both claims.

Monday's protest prompted scuffles between the demonstrators and hardline university students loyal to Ahmadinejad who chanted "Thank you president."

Students were once the main power base of Iran's reform movement but have faced intense pressure in recent years from Ahmadinejad's hard-line government.

"I wish Ahmadinejad could mange the country in a softer and flexible way as he claimed at Columbia University," said Milad Niazi, 21-year-old chemistry student at Tehran Azad University.

Police remained outside the university gates during Monday's protest, and there have been no reports of arrests. Following the demonstration in December, several students were detained for their participation.

In recent months, dissenters have witnessed an increasing crackdown in Iran, and hundreds have been rounded up on accusations of threatening the Iranian system. Numerous newspapers have been shut down and those that remain have been muted in their criticism fearing closure.

Ahmadinejad's popularity at home has fallen since he was elected, with critics saying he has failed to fix the economy and has hurt Iran's image internationally.

Conservatives who once supported the president have increasingly joined in the criticism, saying he needs to pay more attention to domestic issues and his inflammatory rhetoric has needlessly stoked tensions with the West.