TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – About 100 students staged a rare protest Monday against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling him a “dictator” as he gave a speech at Tehran University marking the beginning of the academic year.
While the demonstrators and hard-line students loyal to Ahmadinejad scuffled in the auditorium, the president ignored chants of “Death to the dictator” and gave his speech on the merits of science and the pitfalls of Western-style democracy, witnesses said.
The hard-line students chanted “Thank you, president” as police looked on from outside the university’s gates without intervening. The protesters dispersed after 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 last December when students at Amir Kabir Technical University called him a dictator and burned his picture.
Organizers hoped to avoid a similar disturbance Monday with tightened security measures. They checked the identity papers of everyone entering the campus and allowed only selected students into the hall for the speech, but the protesters were somehow able to gain entrance.
Iran’s reform movement peaked in the late 1990s after reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president and his supporters swept parliament. But their efforts to ease social and political restrictions were stymied by hard-liners who control the judiciary, security forces and powerful unelected bodies in the government.
Reformists, who also favor better relations with the United States, were further demoralized and divided after Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005 elections.
In recent months, dissenters have witnessed an increasing crackdown, with hundreds detained on accusations of threatening the Iranian system. Numerous pro-reform newspapers have been shut down and those that remain have muted their criticism.
At universities, pro-government student groups have gained strength and reformist students have been marginalized, left to hold only low-level meetings and occasional demonstrations, usually to demand better school facilities or the release of detained colleagues.
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.
Ahmadinejad’s popularity at home has fallen since he was elected, with critics saying he has failed to fix the economy and has hurt Iran’s image internationally.
Elected on a populist agenda, Ahmadinejad has not kept campaign promises to share oil revenues with every family, eradicate poverty and reduce unemployment. Instead, housing prices in Tehran have tripled, and prices for fruit, vegetables or other commodities have more than doubled over the past year. Inflation worsened after a 25 percent hike in fuel prices in May.
Last December, Ahmadinejad’s allies were humiliated in municipal elections, with some reformists gaining seats. He was dealt another blow when a rival, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, was chosen as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful clerical body, over a close Ahmadinejad ally.
Conservatives who once supported the president have increasingly joined in the criticism, saying that he needs to pay more attention to domestic issues and that his inflammatory rhetoric has needlessly stoked tensions with the West.