Byline: Kenneth R. Timmerman, INSIGHT
With the leaders of the latest round of student protests now in jail, the freedom movement in Iran has taken up spray paint and slogans to express its displeasure with the ruling clerics. "They must go!" declares one popular slogan, painted on the wall of a Tehran house. "Khatami the incompetent, accomplice of crime!" announces another, referring to Iran's so-called "reformist" president who recently ordered his police to crack down on the students.
Every night, as new slogans appear on the walls of Tehran, squads of basijis (paramilitary Islamic volunteer forces) armed with paint buckets roam the streets trying in vain to scrub the revolutionary messages from the walls. But as this is written, the graffiti-busters can't keep up with the young protesters. In the last few days, slogans have proliferated that call on Tehran residents to come out massively in the streets to commemorate the July 9, 1999, massacre of student protesters. If people heed that call in large numbers, the protests could spread across Iran. And if that occurs, all bets are off as to what happens next.
Iran's clerics appear to realize that popular discontent with their incompetent and repressive rule has reached a fever pitch and has spread to all ages and sectors of the Iranian population. Demonstrations that began on June 10, apparently as a local protest by Tehran students against a government project to privatize the universities, quickly spiraled out of control as pro-regime thugs attacked the students with clubs, chains and automatic weapons.
From Los Angeles, Iranian exile broadcasters such as Shahram Homayoun transformed their satellite-TV talk shows into a 24-hour marathon of encouragement, urging Iranians to support the students against the vigilantes by marching in the streets. "In a half-hour, the streets leading to the campus were choked with people as if everybody had spread the word," one of Homayoun's fans told the Tehran correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro. "These TV stations [beaming programs via satellite] from Los Angeles have begun a real cultural revolution," she added.
The demonstrators called for greater democracy and freedom, and chanted slogans against the clerical leaders, including "reformist" President Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami, who appears increasingly isolated and out of touch with the mood in the country. The protests went on for nine days and nights, with running street battles between demonstrators and armed vigilantes that led to hundreds of wounded and at least one student killed. By the end of the first week the protests had spread to most major Iranian cities, including Mashhad, Shiraz, Tabriz and Isfahan. In Washington, President George W. Bush paid tribute to "those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran" and urged the regime to treat protesters with "the utmost of respect." Instead, on June 17 vigilantes armed with clubs, chains and automatic weapons brutally stormed a student dormitory in Isfahan and murdered seven students, according to reports circulated by Iranian exiles in Germany.
Then began the arrests, many of them carried out in the middle of the night by plainclothes police and intelligence officers who raided university dormitories and private houses, carrying away suspected protest leaders to secret prisons. By June 27, Iran's Prosecutor General Ayatollah Abdonnabi Namazi confirmed that more than 4,000 people, including "some students," had been picked up in the security sweep. On June 28, the U.S.-based Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran announced that a 36-year-old secular leader, Bagher Parto, had "died under torture" in an intelligence-ministry prison in Shiraz where he had been taken 12 days earlier.
The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, has ordered the courts to deal with protesters not as political opponents but as …