Iranian students clash with police during protest against Ahmadinejad

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About 100 students staged a rare protest yesterday against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling him a "dictator" as he gave a speech marking the beginning of the academic year at Tehran University.

The protest prompted scuffles between the demonstrators and hardline university students loyal to Ahmadinejad, who ignored chants of "Death to dictator" and continued his speech on the merits of science and pitfalls of Western-style democracy, witnesses said.

The hardline students chanted back "Thank you president" as police looked on from the outside the university's gates. No physical altercations took place, and the protesters dispersed after the car carrying Ahmadinejad left the campus.

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, making anti-government protests rare.

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 measures, checking the identity papers of all students entering the university and allowing only selected students into the hall. But the protesters were somehow able to gain entrance.

Iran's reform movement peaked in the late 1990s after former reformist President Mohammad Khatami was elected and his supporters swept parliament. But during that time, hard-liners who control the judiciary, security forces and powerful unelected bodies in the government, stymied attempts to ease social and political restrictions.

Reformists — who want to loosen Iran's social and political restrictions and favor better relations with the US — were further demoralized and divided after the 2005 election that brought Ahmadinejad to power.

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 pro-reform newspapers have been shut down and those that remain have been muted in their criticism fearing closure.

At universities, pro-reform students have been marginalized and now only hold low-level meetings and occasional demonstrations, usually to demand better school facilities or the release of detained colleagues. At the same time, pro-government student groups have grown more powerful.

Some dissenters blame the crackdown on the regime's fear of a U.S. effort to undermine it as tensions over Iran's nuclear program intensify. Others say the intent is simply to contain discontent fueled by a faltering economy.