Tehran gripped by worst rioting since revolution

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of young people have taken to the streets of Iran in the past week, causing some of the worst violence in the history of the 22-year-old Islamic revolution.

Tens of thousands of young people have taken to the streets of Iran in the past week, causing some of the worst violence in the history of the 22-year-old Islamic revolution.

The youths – both boys and girls – used two World Cup football qualifying fixtures as an excuse to reclaim the streets and assert their hunger for Western culture and freedoms.

In Tehran, the young people braved tear gas and blows from the security forces to cavort to the sound of the Western pop star Sonique, blaring from radios. Girls blew hooters at Islamic vigilantes armed with staves while their boyfriends fought riot police with stones and homemade explosives.

Shock at a 3-1 loss against Bahrain on Sunday sparked two nights of nationwide protests and the crowds returned to the streets on Wednesday following a 1-0 victory against the Emirates.

"What we're witnessing are the sort of demonstrations which preceded the last months of the Shah,'' said a senior Iranian analyst who wanted his name withheld.

Dozens of banks have been burned and cars overturned as the authorities set up special courts to try more than a thousand detainees officially denounced as football hooligans.

But the chanting of the crowds has been overtly political. Youths taunted groups of brutal Islamic vigilantes known as Bassiji, Persian for holy warriors, and chanted zindibad azadi [long live freedom].

The 11 September attacks have boosted pro-Western voices. Iran has emerged as one of the few Muslim states where people have taken to the streets in sympathy with the US.

Conservatives remain suspicious that expressions of sympathy hide a broader agenda of counter-revolution. Earlier this month in Mohseni Square – a part of Tehran so Westernised that Iranians call it the 51st state of America – police used clubs to disperse a crowd of mourners, including elderly women, holding a vigil for the New York attacks.

Hard-liners say that the war in Afghanistan marks the final stage in the military encirclement of Iran. In addition to the US arsenal in the Persian Gulf, Washington now has thousands of troops close to Iran's eastern border with Pakistan and to the north in Tajikistan.

Western efforts to bring back the exiled shah of Afghanistan are arousing fears of a similar plot to restore a shah to Iran. In silent protests on Sunday, demonstrators in Mohseni Square claimed Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted late shah, as their spiritual leader.

Opposition satellite TV channels beamed from Los Angeles have stoked a growing nostalgia for the monarchy. In a belated effort to muzzle the royalists, the Islamic vigilantes have swooped on the rooftops of northern Tehran confiscating hundreds of satellite dishes.

But popular pressure has already extracted concessions from the ayatollahs. While women are still barred from attending football games, they now occupy the front desks in Iranian hotels and strut the streets holding hands with their boyfriends.

Opposition to the great Satan of the US has given way to tacit support for the attack on the Taliban and an official policy of "active neutrality'' in the American bombing. Iran has also undertaken to rescue any US airmen downed in Afghanistan.

Newspaper editorials have openly appealed to the clerics not to waste the opportunity to mend relations with the US and have called on President Khatami to join the alliance.

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