Iran Hard-Liners Rally 100,000
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ Iranian hard-liners answered a week of pro-democracy rallies with one of their own Wednesday, sending 100,000 people into the streets of Tehran to make it clear they will not cave in to student-led demands for reforms.
The hard-line backlash jeopardizes the standing of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate clergyman and hero to the many Iranians who yearn for greater freedom after 20 years of strict Islamic rule by the clergy.
Tens of thousands of hard-line supporters packed into Tehran University’s sprawling campus near the center of the Iranian capital. More spilled out into the surrounding streets _ the same areas where the pro-reform students have marched in past days.
Demonstrators, including women in black Islamic garb, waved red-white-and-green Iranian flags and pictures of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as they marched and listened to speeches.
``Death to America!″ some shouted. Demonstrators also underlined their support for Khamenei by chanting ``Our blood is our gift to our leader!″
Witnesses estimated the crowd at 100,000, but Tehran television, which is run by hard-liners, put the number of protesters at one million.
In addition, thousands of hard-line vigilantes roared around Tehran on motorcycles.
One speaker, senior clergyman Hassan Rowhani, declared that those who damaged public property during six previous days of reform protests would be tried as enemies of the state _ a crime that carries the death penalty.
Wednesday’s counter-demonstration was a clear attempt by hard-liners to show they could muster a crowd more impressive than those who turned out during six days of student demonstrations. Up to 25,000 Khatami supporters turned out in the first such mass street protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
There were few pictures of Khatami in the crowd Wednesday. Pro-democracy protesters stayed off the streets, heeding warnings that police would allow no demonstrations other than the authorized hard-line rally.
Khamenei, an unelected religious leader, has the final word in Iran and controls the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry and the broadcast network.
Traditionally, the hard-line Khamenei has stood above criticism, but many student protesters tore up pictures of him earlier this week and called on him to step aside and let Khatami speed up his reforms.
The speech by Rowhani, the deputy head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, put pro-democracy protesters on notice of a possible harsh response to their demonstrations.
``Those who destroyed public property and went on the rampage and committed aggression against the Islamic system will be tried in our courts as mohareb and mofsed,″ Rowhani told demonstrators.
``Mohareb″ and ``mofsed″ are terms used for die-hard opponents of the republic. The punishment for those guilty of being ``mofsed″ _ Farsi for ``corrupt″ _ is execution by hanging.
Rowhani was referring to protesters who rampaged Tuesday after police dispersed them with tear gas. They burned empty buses and smashed shop windows before being stopped by police and baton-wielding gangs of hard-line vigilantes, witnesses said by telephone.
Iran’s moderate interior minister, meanwhile, announced that the unrest had been contained.
The official Islamic News Agency quoted Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari as saying the situation had been brought under control ``with the help of devoted people standing in unity and solidarity (who) assisted the government in curbing the insurgency.″
He blamed ``undesirable elements and opportunists,″ foreign and domestic, of trying to spread disorder, but gave no indication what would happen to the scores of reformers arrested during the past week.
The student unrest began last Friday when police stormed a university dormitory after students rallied Thursday against the banning of a liberal newspaper. One person was killed and 20 were injured in the clash that hard-line clerics apparently backed.
Khamenei and other officials have expressed sympathy with the students and condemned the dormitory raid. Two police officials were dismissed because of it. Hard-liners also promised to rein in the vigilantes they have sent out in the past to beat up opponents, attack reformist newspapers and break up pro-democracy demonstrations.
But government officials showed no signs Wednesday of bending to student demands, particularly for the removal of the national police chief, Brig. Gen. Hedayat Lotfian.
The new response indicated that the hard-liners were regaining the upper hand against the president, Khatami.
In his struggle with hard-liners, Khatami has relied on his wide popularity, shown in his overwhelming victory in elections two years ago.