Iranian students openly defy rule of the mullahs

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Thousands of Iranian students took to the streets of Tehran yesterday in the biggest protests against the mullahs' rule since the huge demonstrations four years ago. Students fought in the streets with hardline vigilantes on motorbikes who were armed with chains, clubs and cattle prods.

It was the third successive night ot protests. The students rounded on Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chanting: "Death to Khamenei" and "Khamenei, the traitor, must be hanged." In a society where criticising the Supreme Leader is punishable by jail, this was open defiance of the mullahs who have ruled Iran since the 1979 revolution.

The students also chanted against the reformist President, Mohammad Khatami. Many young Iranians have become disillusioned by the President's failure to achieve change in Iran and accuse him of being too meek.

The protests continued last night, when hundreds of pro-cleric militants and security forces fired machine guns in the air and using tear gas and batons to put down any public opposition to the country's hard-line regime.

Hours before yesterday's protests, Ayatollah Khamenei accused the United States of trying to stir up dissent in Iran. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has been calling for a change of government, as well as accusing Iran of having a secret nuclear weapons programme. The US has denied it has any plans for military action against Tehran.

The student protests have been fuelled by Persian-language satellite television stations run by exiled Iranian opposition groups in the US, which many in Iran watch illegally. The stations have called on Iranians to take to the streets, and their reports of the first two nights of protests exaggerated the number of demonstrators to encourage others.

The US government has been making contacts with some exiles, notably Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. He is a regular guest on the Persian-language satellite television stations.

But the potential explosiveness of the situation was clear yesterday. Ayatollah Khamenei made a thinly veiled threat to unleash the thugs of the Ansar-e Hizbollah militia against the students, just as the regime did when it was threatened by protests in 1999.

Yesterday some black-clad "vigilantes" turned up, but the students fought back. The police role was unclear. Some police held the pro-regime rioters back, while others charged the students.