TEHRAN (Reuters) - More than 100 students scuffled with police and hardline supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday on Tehran University campus and chanted “Death to the dictator” outside a hall where the Iranian president spoke.
“Revolutionary president, we support you,” the hardline students shouted back, pushing and shoving those who were voicing opposition to Ahmadinejad, a Reuters witness said.
Liberal-minded students and academics have criticized the president for clamping down on dissent on Iranian campuses, although the president and his government insist they support free speech and welcome constructive opposition.
Monday’s protest was the second rowdy reception Ahmadinejad has received at a university in less than a year. In December, students tried to disrupt his speech on another campus by hurling firecrackers, chanting and burning his picture.
“Students should feel responsible in the international arena ... Today’s world needs them,” state television quoted the president as telling university officials and students in the hall. The television made no mention of disturbances outside.
One of the pro-reform students said those allowed inside to listen were handpicked because they supported the president. “We were not invited,” said the student, asking not to be named.
Students and activists say some of those who have spoken out against the president and his government in the past two years have been detained or blacklisted from university courses.
Students on Monday shouted: “Detained students should be released”. Ahmadinejad’s supporters responded: “Hypocrites, leave the university” and waved religious banners.
The president, who polarizes opinions in Iran by berating the West and with his populist agenda, had delayed his speech from last week because he felt unwell, officials had said.
More than 100 students, who tried to leave the campus to protest, briefly scuffled with campus police who stopped them.
“Fascist president, the university is not a place for you,” students chanted as they marched towards the campus gates.
Other rival students, including members of the Basij religious militia, wrestled and punched each other.
Before leaving the campus, some professors gave Ahmadinejad a carpet to thank him for his speech at New York’s Columbia University last month. The U.S. university’s head introduced his guest as a “cruel dictator”. Ahmadinejad said this was rude.
Ahmadinejad swept to office in 2005 vowing to share out Iran’s oil wealth fairly and a return to revolutionary ideals. Critics say his policies have stoked inflation and his fiery speeches have provoked Western nations to impose sanctions.
In the late 1990s, students formed a bastion of support for the social and political reforms promoted by then president, Mohammad Khatami. In 1999, a student protest against a liberal newspaper closure was routed by baton-wielding thugs. Many students became disillusioned as reforms failed to materialize.
Gauging popular support for Ahmadinejad is difficult in the absence of reliable opinion polls. Anecdotal evidence suggests he has many backers in the provinces, particularly poorer areas that have benefited from state largesse. But grumbling in the cities has become vocal.
Ahmadinejad’s backers were trounced in local council polls in December, particularly in big urban centers like Tehran. His supporters face a new test in the March parliamentary election.
“I did not vote for him but I was not against him (in the 2005 presidential vote). If I was doubtful last time, I am completely sure this time that I will not vote for him,” said a 22-year-old Tehran University student, asking not to be named.
Iran is embroiled in a nuclear row with the West, which accuses the Islamic Republic of seeking atomic bombs. Tehran denies the charge and has rejected demands to stop the work. As a result of its refusal, U.N. sanctions have been imposed.
Yahya Saffarian, a student who has been suspended from his studies, told an Iranian rights group meeting this month that the government was seeking to remove opponents from campuses.
“If education is a right, we will not give it up ... and if it is a privilege, it seems a specific group is only entitled to that,” he said.