TEHRAN, Iran — Hard-line militiamen firing tear gas and throwing stones stormed a crowd of thousands of university students protesting for a second day Tuesday, as Iran threatened a tougher crackdown on the opposition after the biggest anti-government demonstrations in months.
More than 200 people were arrested in Tehran on Monday during protests by tens of thousands at universities nationwide, and Iran’s top prosecutor warned further unrest would not be tolerated. He hinted authorities could even pursue the top opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, an escalation the government has so far balked at in Iran’s postelection turmoil.
Masked motorcyclists – likely hard-line militiamen – harassed Mousavi at his Tehran office on Tuesday. An angry Mousavi confronted them, daring them, “Kill me!” before being hustled away by aides, according to pro-opposition Web sites.
Authorities appear concerned that the protest movement could pick up new steam after Monday’s demonstrations, in which students clashed with police and militiamen in the streets of Tehran.
A fierce crackdown since the summer crushed the mass protests that erupted after June’s disputed presidential election. But Monday’s unrest showed how students have revitalized the movement. They showed an increased boldness, openly breaking the biggest taboo in Iran, burning pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanting slogans against him.
The protests spilled over into a second day Tuesday. Several thousand students rallied in Tehran University, chanting slogans and waving Iranian flags in front of the Engineering College when they were assaulted by hard-line Basij militiamen, witnesses said. At least one student was dragged away, the witnesses said.
Footage posted on the Internet, said to be from Tuesday, showed the crowd of students sitting in front of the college building, many wearing surgical masks and scarves over their faces against gas or to hide their identities. They clapped and chanted “death to the dictator” and insults against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters, saying “Ahmadi came up short, he brought out brainless youth.”
They are then seen fleeing as Basijis rush after them, firing tear gas and throwing stones. Students jostled in the crowd to get away, some crying out in warning, “Basiji, Basiji,” while women screamed, “God is great.” One student is seen staggering away, holding his eyes after being hit by pepper spray. Inside the college building, students lit papers in a bonfire in an attempt to ward off clouds of tear gas.
About a dozen students also clashed with riot police on the streets outside the university, witnesses said. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution. Foreign journalists, including The Associated Press, have been barred from covering protests.
Tehran’s police chief, Gen. Azizullah Rajabzadeh, announced that 204 protesters, including 39 women, were arrested in the capital during Monday’s demonstrations and would be handed over to the judiciary. There was no immediate word on the number of arrests outside Tehran.
Iran’s top prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, warned that the judiciary will no longer tolerate protests.
“So far, we have shown restraint. From today, no leniency will be applied,” he said, according to the official IRNA news agency.
When asked at a press conference if the judiciary will pursue Mousavi, he said, “We will not tolerate anyone who commits actions against security, and we will confront them,” according to the Fars news agency. He also suggested prosecutors could go after Mahdi Hashemi, the son of the most powerful supporter of the opposition in the clerical hierarchy, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Ejehi, a hard-line cleric, even snapped at Tehran prosecutors not to be lax. “If the Tehran prosecutor does not make its first priority (investigating) those who every day violate public order and damage public property, we will give it a warning and, if necessary, take action,” he said.
Hard-line clerics and commanders of the elite Revolutionary Guard have called for Mousavi’s arrest, accusing him of fueling protests and conspiring against Iran’s clerical leadership. Arresting Mousavi or other top opposition leaders would likely spark greater turmoil.
Up to 30 men on motorcycles, some in masks, swarmed outside Mousavi’s office on Tuesday. They blocked him as he tried to drive out of the garage and chanted slogans against him, two opposition Web sites said, citing witnesses.
Mousavi got out of his car and shouted at them, “You’re agents. Do whatever you’ve been ordered to do, kill me, beat me, threaten me!” before aides rushed him inside, the Gooya News Web site reported. The men left several hours later and Mousavi was able to leave.
During Monday’s demonstrations, hard-line students mobbed Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard at Tehran University, spraying her with pepper spray before her supporters took her away, opposition Web sites reported.
The turnout in Monday’s protests showed that months of arrests and government intimidation have failed to stamp out the movement, sparked by opposition claims that Mousavi was the rightful winner of the June vote and that Ahmadinejad won by fraud.
In the crackdown, more than 100 politicians, activists and protesters have been put on a mass trial, accused of being part of a foreign-backed plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Five have been sentenced to death and 80 others to prison terms up to 15 years.
Since the summer, the opposition has held major protests less than once a month – timed to coincide with the many political anniversaries and religious occasions that traditionally bring street demonstrations. The strategy aims to drum up as many people as possible and draw more attention.
The coming months could heat up with several key occasions for possible protests.
In mid-December, the Islamic holy month of Moharram begins – and throughout the month Iranians traditionally hold mass mourning ceremonies. Next comes the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which is marked by 10 days of celebrations in early February.
Keath reported from Cairo.
spotted by RS