Daily Telegraph: To chants of “death to the dictator”, hundreds of Iranian students have mounted a vociferous protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Daily Telegraph
By David Blair, Diplomatic Correspondent
To chants of “death to the dictator”, hundreds of Iranian students have mounted a vociferous protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The demonstration at Teheran University, where the president gave a speech opening the academic year, drove home the depth of his domestic unpopularity.
Despite high oil prices, Iran suffers persistent unemployment and rising inflation, which many blame on Mr Ahmadinejad’s economic policies.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranian students graduate every year and many are left jobless. Hence the president is deeply unpopular on many campuses.
After winning office in 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad conducted a purge of Teheran University, sacking liberal reformers on the academic staff. The president infuriated many students by installing a hardline cleric, Ayatollah Amid Zanjani, as the university’s chancellor.
Ayatollah Zanjani, who does not hold any secular academic qualifications, is the first cleric to hold this position.
Before Mr Ahmadinejad’s appearance on the campus yesterday, hundreds of students gathered.
Some were supporters of the government, who chanted “revolutionary president, we support you”. Others were opponents of Mr Ahmadinejad, who shouted “death to the dictator” and “fascist president, the university is no place for you”.
Last month, the president spoke at Columbia University, in New York, where he faced hostile questioning from staff and students.
Referring to this occasion, students in Teheran waved a banner asking “Why only Columbia? We have questions for you too”.
Others compared the president to Chile’s late dictator, Augusto Pinochet, “Ahmadinejad is Pinochet! Iran will not become Chile,” they shouted.
The president’s supporters scuffled with his student critics. Eventually, he was able to give his speech inside the university campus. It is not clear whether Mr Ahmadinejad came face to face with the demonstrators or whether he entered the campus by a route which avoided them.
Protests against the president have taken place on Iran’s university campuses before. Last December, some students burned his portrait in front of him. On that occasion, Mr Ahmadinejad defended their right to demonstrate, saying that it proved Iran’s devotion to freedom.
But many of the students were arrested later. Some are still believed to be in detention.
Mr Ahmadinejad’s hardline anti-Western foreign policy, notably his public pledge to wipe Israel “from the pages of history”, has bolstered his popularity across the Muslim world. But it has not helped his standing inside Iran.
While many Iranians back his hardline stance, others see it as pointless belligerence and a distraction from the central task of rebuilding the country’s stagnant economy.
Parliamentary elections will take place next March. Mr Ahmadinejad’s opponents are planning to form a new coalition, embracing liberal reformers and pragmatic conservatives.
If they succeed, critics of Mr Ahmadinejad could win a majority in parliament. This would make it harder for the president to seek re-election when his term ends in 2009.