Pro-democracy protests against Iran’s Islamic regime drew a smaller than anticipated turnout Wednesday. While thousands of Iranians in cars and on foot created dense crowds in many parts of the capital -- and witnesses reported sporadic, small-scale clashes between police, Islamic vigilantes and young people -- the city retained an air of relative normality.
However, not all was normal in Tehran.
Three student activists were kidnapped by a group of 10 to 15 unknown assailants as they departed from a news conference into one of Tehran’s busiest streets Wednesday afternoon.
In the presence of foreign journalists, the students were grabbed, pistols put to their temples, their arms twisted behind their backs. Other attackers waved weapons in the air and ordered the journalists to stand back.
The kidnappers, believed by students to be either Islamic vigilantes or plainclothes police dispatched by Iran’s hard-line judiciary, struck the students -- Arash Hashemi, Reza Ameri Nasab and Ali Moghtaderi -- several times with their fists before pushing them into a waiting car that vanished into traffic.
For two hours, about 20 additional students remained inside, frantically calling members of parliament to secure protection. They pleaded for journalists to stay with them until the police arrived, hoping that would discourage a raid on the building.
Without the guidance of senior organizers, most of whom have been arrested in recent days, the students debated going on a hunger strike and sang Iran’s pre-revolutionary national anthem.
“Our rights are being trampled. At this point, all we’re asking is to be able to commemorate a day when our friends were killed. When we see we’re not even allowed this much space, our frustration grows,” Hashemi had said in an interview a day before the kidnapping. “This turns a cry of protest into a scream, and at some point that scream will no longer be containable.”
The student activists from the Office to Consolidate Unity, the main Iranian student group, had called the news conference to explain their cancellation of a planned sit-in outside the U.N. building in Tehran. Reformist members of parliament had appealed to them to keep their protest off the streets.
The activists posted a nine-page letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Internet, calling for the release of imprisoned students, outlining their grievances against the Islamic regime and detailing abuses of human rights. At the news conference, they said they were under intense pressure from the government to recant the letter.
Opponents of the Islamic system had hoped that the protests, marking the anniversary of an attack on a student dormitory in 1999 that left at least one student dead, would spark further demonstrations and bring down the clerical regime. They had hoped for a turnout of tens of thousands of Iranians, but significantly fewer people participated.
“Maybe this year’s anniversary won’t make that much of a difference,” said one student, who asked not to be identified. “But our discontent will eventually manifest itself somehow, or explode.”
Near Tehran University, security forces armed with batons were stationed on each street corner. Riot police were deployed at nearby Laleh Park, and they frequently made forays into neighboring streets.
Green minibuses that security forces use to transport those arrested at rallies stood at the ready, and military helicopters circled in a show of force designed to discourage the chanting of anti-regime slogans.
Afraid of being beaten by vigilantes or detained by riot police, some protesters stayed in their cars and honked their horns, turning a long stretch near Tehran University into a parking lot.
The Basij, the voluntary Islamic militia that is loyal to hard-line clerics and used by them to put down social unrest, staged a counter-protest near the university. About 50 militia members, on foot and on motorbike, moved toward the university, chanting, “Hezbollah,” or “Party of God.”
In a campaign that began after a week of pro-democracy protests in June, authorities arrested hundreds of student organizers, and satellite dishes were confiscated to help prevent Wednesday’s anniversary from triggering widespread unrest.
Security forces combed neighborhoods near Tehran’s major universities earlier this week, warning shopkeepers to close early and residents to pull their curtains and refrain from either looking outside or offering shelter to fleeing protesters.
Student rallies were banned and campuses were closed so student groups could not meet.
Many viewers of Los Angeles-based opposition satellite TV, both in Iran and overseas, have been unable to receive the channels’ signal for the last three days. The stations had been urging Iranians to use the anniversary as an opportunity to destabilize the regime.