x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The reformists are ready to rally

Iran braces for possibly violent confrontations today, with university students ready to stage the first anti-government show of force in a month.

Iran is braced for possibly violent confrontations today, with university students ready to stage the first anti-government show of force in a month despite warnings of a "merciless" campaign against dissent. Battered but defiant, the opposition is determined to prove that it is alive and kicking six months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president in June. "It is very bitter to see the same mistakes are repeated by the authorities who insist that reforms have ended - After all these pressures, the movement has not ended," Iran's opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, said yesterday on the Kaleme website.

Internet services and Iran's mobile phone network were crippled to rob protesters of the means to communicate. The regime also ordered journalists working for foreign media not to leave their offices and warned pro-reform newspapers against publishing "divisive" material. Thousands of extra security forces are deployed on the streets around universities. Human rights groups say scores of student activists have been arrested in recent weeks.

Those challenging Mr Ahmadinejad's legitimacy do not expect immediate results, but insist they have the resilience to mount a prolonged challenge, comparing the contest to a "marathon" rather than a sprint. Embarrassing and infuriating the regime, protesters in recent months hijacked officially sponsored anti-Israeli and anti-US anniversaries to organise street demonstrations where crowds chanted: "Death to the dictator". The regime responded to the "illegal" demonstrations with violence and arrests. In between, protesters rallied, insisting their demands for change and justice are undiminished.

Today is Students Day, which annually commemorates the killing of three students by security forces in an anti-US rally in 1953, just months after an Anglo-American-backed coup toppled the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. Authorities have warned that only regime supporters with official permits will be allowed onto campuses today: unauthorised rally attempts outside universities will be crushed. "The system of the Islamic republic of Iran will from now on deal mercilessly - with any action that causes disruption in the system," Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, Iran's prosecutor general, warned on state television. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a powerful hardline cleric, told people not to do anything that "pleases the United States".

Historically, Iranian universities have played a key role during turbulent times. Students were a powerful force during the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the autocratic, pro-US shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but later became the cornerstone of a reformist movement pressing for a more liberal system. Opposition websites already had called for demonstrations near the main universities before the government disrupted internet connections. Protest leaders urged people to use their cars to choke streets with traffic jams to prevent security forces reaching the universities.

Protesters used leaflets, graffiti and networks of friends and family to organise. Students met clandestinely and distributed newsletters by hand. The two main opposition leaders, Mr Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi - both of whom lost to Mr Ahmadinejad in June - have not announced whether they will join today's protests as they have done in the past. "Protesters are likely to face a violent crackdown," said Mowjcamp.com, a website close to Mr Mousavi warned.

He and Mr Karrubi are viewed as the mostly symbolic leadership of a broad movement they do not wholly control. Both, committed to Iran's Islamic system, have argued that they are challenging the election to save the Islamic republic from dictatorship. Other leaders have warned that the regime's response to dissent risks transforming protesters who do not oppose the Islamic republic into extremists who do.

Yesterday, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential former president and bitter rival of Mr Ahmadinejad, accused Iran's rulers of having closed the door on constructive criticism. He called on political factions to work within the law to "create a climate of freedom which will convince the majority of people and erase ambiguities". Thousands of reformists, including former top officials, students, lawyers and activists, were arrested after the vote. Most have been freed, but more than 80 people subjected to mass show trials have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Five have been sentenced to death. More than 70 were killed in post-election violence; many detainees were abused, the opposition says.

At least 90 students were arrested in recent weeks in an "attempt to decapitate the student movement", said International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, based in New York and Holland. Many students have complained of "aggressive surveillance" by security forces. Members of the pro-government Basij militia are alleged to be paying some students to snitch on classmates suspected of being pro-opposition "troublemakers".

The Basijis have also forced female students flouting the dress code to sign forms that they broke the rules, keeping their signature for use by prosecutors if they are involved in protests. One student told the Associated Press: "Student dissatisfaction has reached a point where it's about to explode." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae