STUDENT PROTESTS in Iran have brought fear of radical change for the country's rulers and nauseating hypocrisy from George Bush. Thousands of students took to the streets in five nights of protests that began last week. They started in the main university area in the capital Tehran. By the weekend protests were taking place in several other cities - Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz and Mashhad (a major religious centre).
The trigger for the demonstrations was news that the government was considering privatising some universities and introducing tuition fees. Student protesters clashed with riot police and with vigilantes who back the conservative wing of Iran's Islamist state. Many were injured. By the weekend the authorities decided to change tack in an effort to defuse the protests.
The reformist wing of the state, which controls the parliament and the regular police force, ordered the police to turn on the vigilantes. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a senior figure in the regime, told a congregation at Friday prayers in Tehran University that the students were not 'agents of the US' but had raised legitimate concerns. For George Bush, however, they are an excuse to ratchet up his drive to extend US power across the Middle East.
He cynically claimed at the weekend to back the student protesters, saying, 'This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive.'
Rich Iranian exile groups have tried to take credit for the protests, claiming their satellite television broadcasts inspired them. These groups, based in the US and Britain, comprise supporters of the brutal Shah of Iran and his dynasty, which was overthrown in the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Their interests could not be further removed from those of students and young people taking to the streets of Iran. And theirs is not the only message beaming into the satellite dishes that have sprung up across Iranian cities over the last decade.
The young people on the streets of Iran have seen people their age brutalised by the Israeli army in Gaza and the West Bank, and take to the streets in anti-capitalist and anti-war protests across the world. And they have seen the pictures from Al Jazeera television (not shown by Western channels) of the suffering the US has brought to Iraq and Afghanistan, which both border Iran.
It is unclear whether the arrests of vigilantes and promises not to privatise the universities will be enough to end the protests for now. But already the students have cracked open the divisions within the Iranian state and have pointed towards the kind of mass movement that can win far reaching change for working people and the poor.
A powerful anger driven by poverty and inequality
By Elaheh Rostami Povey
IT IS simply not true that protesters are pro-US. If you read the independent Iranian media or speak to people there, it is clear the students are not coming onto the streets to praise George Bush. There is an ignorance in the Western media that borders on racism. The protests in Tehran are centred on students living in dormitories. These are generally poorer students from small cities and towns.
Middle class students from Tehran tend to live with their families or in apartments in the northern suburbs of the city. The calls for political change raised by the students are for rapidly accelerating the process of reform that began six years ago when Ayatollah Khatemi won the election for president.
The protesters include religious students who want to see greater choice for people over whether and how they practice religion. But the protests are also driven by anger over economic conditions and that can make them explosive. The university population has mushroomed as it has in countries such as Egypt and India.
An astonishing 64 percent of students are women. Yet, graduate unemployment has also grown. So has inflation. Tehran is a very expensive city to live in. People say we get paid in rials, the Iranian currency, but face expenses in dollars, which are worth much more.
As in every developing country, the population is young. Despite the conservative social ideology the regime pushed in the 1980s under Ayatollah Khomeini, people's lives have been transformed. Women's participation in the labour market is now 2 percent higher than it was during the height of westernisation under the Shah in the 1970s.
The recent changes to family law - which give more liberal divorce rules than under the Shah - are the regime being forced to recognise reality. There is a sharp class division. It's very obvious for ordinary students who come across children of rich families or state bureaucrats for the first time. There is huge pressure on living standards for the poor, the working class, and even sections of the middle class.
They want a greater say over society and they want economic improvement. That does not make them pro-US. The student movement is spontaneous, with people grappling for ideas. Some use the language of religion.
In countries such as Egypt the Islamist parties have had great influence on this layer of society. But Iran is a self declared Islamic state. So there are very sharp ideological contradictions when people take to the streets.
Elaheh is a socialist and writer on Iranian society who lives in Britain