Two students were killed this week in a major eruption of anti-government demonstrations in Iran inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia. The funeral of one of the students sparked further clashes in Tehran amid reports of unrest in other university towns.
Tehran University of Fine Arts student Sanee Zhaleh and another student named as Mohammed Mokhtari were shot in the streets during a banned protest in Tehran on Monday.
The protests were in response to a rally call from opposition leaders Mir Hosein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliamentary speaker, to march in support of the recent Arab uprisings.
The opposition leaders were held under house arrest and not allowed to join the first major demonstrations in the country since the 2009 protests sparked off by the disputed elections in June that year.
Analysts said the government's strategy was to isolate the 'Green' opposition movement leaders from their student support base. Around half the country's 70 million people are under 25 with a large population bulge in the 15 to 30 years age group.
"The opposition movement is run by students. That two students were killed shows that the students are still at the centre of the movement," said Saeed Paivandi, an associate professor at the University of Paris 8 and an expert on the Iranian university sector.
"These protests are without doubt inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia. There is a lot of resemblance to what happened in those countries, and they in turn were very similar to what happened in Iran two years ago," Paivandi told University World News.
"But what is very frustrating is that Egypt and Tunisia achieved their goals very quickly - the removal of [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak and [Tunisian president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali. However Iran is lagging behind."
Nonetheless, the protests showed the authorities' claim that the opposition movement in Iran had been suppressed, to be a hollow one.
Paivandi said since 2009, universities had become more and more repressive as the authorities were determined to crack down on dissent. Unlike Egyptian students and academics, campus activism has been severely curbed.
"There is a lot more pressure on students and their activities now, with many different threats. Students and professors are confronted with a repressive system routinely, every day," Paivandi said.
He added: "Most of those arrested this week are students. Opposition politicians are also among them but the vast majority are students, an indication that they are at the forefront of the movement. "
Security commander Ahmadreza Radan confirmed to official Iranian media that 1,500 people had been arrested during protests on Monday and Tuesday. He described the protests as being led by a handful of "seditionists".
Student unrest was also reported in the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan, Rasht, Mashhad and Kermanshah, and student groups reported that dozens of students of Nooshiravani University of Babol, Tehran University and Sanati Sharif University were arrested.
On Tuesday Rehana, the human rights organisation, reported that Amain Salmanian, former secretary of a reformist students' organisation, and student activists Mohammad Nur-Mohammadi and Morteza Divsalar, had been arrested during the 14 February protests.
Farhad Fathi, secretary of the reformist students' organisation of Qazvin International University, was also arrested on 14 February. He was expelled from the university and is facing a four month suspended prison sentence, Rehana said.
Zhaleh, one of the students killed this week, was said to be a supporter of the Green movement, which advocates for reforms in Iran. But a war of words broke out in an attempt by the authorities to prevent him being used by the opposition as a martyr to their cause, and they have also refused to surrender the body to his family.
Official media insisted Zhaleh was member of the volunteer Islamist Basij militia, while the opposition said he came from their ranks.
"This university student [Zhaleh] was shot around Enghelab Square [in Tehran] by small arms fire. He was a student of fine arts and defender of the regime," said the state news agency IRNA.
But the opposition website Rahesabz.net said Saleh was "pro-Mousavi and a member of the Green movement. His family was under pressure to say he is Basiji and pro-government," the website said.
Paivandi said the authorities had "abandoned all ethical and moral behaviour" in their attempt to prevent Zhaleh being used as a martyr.
During Zhaleh's funeral, held on Wednesday 16 February in Tehran, student groups said police had blocked all the roads leading to the University of Fine Arts, allowing in only pro-government supporters.
Sajjad Rezaei, secretary of the Islamic Association at the university, which also had Zhaleh as a member, told opposition websites that dozens of buses carrying Basij arrived at the campus. The members, who Rezaei said were not students at the university, shouted slogans denouncing the Green movement.
According to the Iranian opposition in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Basij members invaded the ceremony at the university, reportedly trapping some student mourners inside a hall. A lecturer at the University of Fine Arts and seven students were arrested, opposition groups reported.
With universities on their semester break this week, the security forces in Tehran and elsewhere said students were not permitted to enter universities.
At Mashhad's Ferdowsi University, students were arrested after gathering outside the engineering faculty on Monday. They were released after several hours.
Meanwhile the Human Rights House of Iran reported that security forces attacked students as they were leaving a gathering at Sharif University on Monday, and arrests were made.
In parliament, conservative Iranian MPs called for two leading opposition figures, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Medh Karraoubi, to be executed for creating public disorder.
* Iranian journalist interns, who cannot be named, contributed to this report.
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