Street riot sends signal to Shah's successors

INSIDE IRAN; They burnt the co-operative and attacked the petrol stations; How is the day of tragedy to be reported? 'Small riot, few dead'?
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The Independent Online
Islamshah - They've done a good job on Islamshah. In just two months, they've rebuilt the inside of the gutted Bank Tejarat on Saveh Street, repainted the government co-operative shop in the main square and plastered over the bullet holes in the walls.

You'd think it just another drab Iranian industrial town of steel and bottle factories if it wasn't for the tell-tale holes smashed in the sign of the Shilaat Shopping Co-operative and the broken windows above. In town they say up to 60 - even 100 - were killed here in the April riots. The government says you can count the dead on the fingers of two hands (presumably attached).

No one denies there was violence in Islamshah and the neighbouring town of Akbarabad. And most people agree about the immediate causes: a sudden rise in the cost of bus tickets, and taps that emitted water the colour of mud.

There was burning, and shooting by the paramilitary police who cordoned off the streets, and many arrests. At least 50 citizens are to appear soon before the gentle mercy of Gholamhussein Rahbarpur, head of the Tehran revolutionary courts; but none of the suspects, according to the good judge, belong to political opposition groups - which, if true, must be a relief to President Rafsanjani.

A visit to Islamshah, a wind-thrashed town of slum houses 30 miles south-west of Tehran, however, suggests politics was not far from the minds of the young men who stormed into the streets on 4 April. Local shopkeepers heard some of the demonstrators cry "down with Rafsanjani" and worse; their targets were almost exclusively government property. They burnt out the local co-operative - selling subsidised rice, tinned food and oil to the poor - and attacked petrol stations blamed for the price rise of bus tickets - an increase that the government had not sanctioned. The speed with which the authorities repaired the damage and installed new furniture in the bank was witness to the embarrassment the affair caused.

Most Islamshah citizens were too frightened to talk to strangers, let alone Western journalists, this week. However, a few ventured the kind of evidence that re-created the anger expressed in Saveh Street when the city's piped water supply turned into sewage. "I tried to drive into town," a school-teacher called Azad said as he stood opposite the repainted co-operative. "The police stopped me and said the area was closed, so I went in on foot. I saw tyres burning in the streets and in one road I saw a crowd throwing stones at the police. The shop over there was on fire."

A jeweller a hundred metres away claimed he heard nothing more than the shouts of the crowd and the sound of plastic shop signs being smashed. "The people had come from Akbarabad but they couldn't get us to join in," he said. "The police herded them back on to the main highway."

But a rug merchant called Faisaala was more forthcoming. He heard the smashing of glass on the afternoon of 4 April, and immediately rolled down his iron shop shutter to prevent looting. "Then I heard shooting."

According to other shopkeepers, Iran's paramilitary police crushed the riot by firing from rooftops. The teacher admitted "several" people had died - unofficially, the government claims seven fatalities - although the numbers have risen dramatically in private conversation. One woman insisted 50 men had been killed in Akbarabad alone. So how is Islamshah's day of tragedy to be reported? 'Small riot, few dead'?

It's certainly not the first time security forces have had to deal with popular discontent. There were reports of street violence in Tehran last year and much greater disturbances occurred in Mashad in 1993. Furthermore, some demonstrators in Islamshah were heard denouncing the President for the rapidly rising inflation that has impoverished millions of Iranians.

The town is populated largely by Azeris, a Turkic-speaking minority who have drifted into the cities from the countryside since the revolution, illegally building concrete allotments around suburbs and on the edges of motorways.

Their refusal to move into their officially designated apartments and their make-shift waterpipes are blamed by the government for the filthy water that helped caused the riots.

Bus prices have been lowered to original fares while the new Iranian exchange rate of 3,000 riyals to the US dollar is supposed to stabilise prices.

It was hardly the kind of violence to bring down the Islamic Republic, of course, but no one in Iran - let alone the clerics who participated in the revolution - can forget that street disturbances provided the fuel that burnt the Shah from his throne and sent the mighty of Tehran to the gallows.