Iran’s security forces and pro-regime militias besieged and attacked students and faculty at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities late on Sunday as part of a widespread effort to quell a widespread outbreak of political protests sparked by the 16 September death of a young woman in the custody of the morality police.
Uniformed security forces and ideologically fervent Basij militiamen loyal to the regime could be seen in videos attacking students at Tehran’s elite Sharif University of Technology, a storied engineering and science-focused institution that has produced graduates coveted by firms and institutions worldwide.
“Oh my, oh my,” says a woman filming the detention of a young man by masked motorcyclists in front of Sharif University.
“They’re taking the young guy away! They’re taking him away,” she cries just as one of the enforcers turns to her and fires off a round from what appears to be a paint gun.
The unrest at Sharif coincided with several days of renewed clashes between peaceful protesters and regime security forces that left dozens dead across the country following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an ethnic Kurd visiting the capital who was abducted by the newly reinvigorated morality police and died under unclear circumstances while in detention.
The death, which Amini’s parents allege was preceded by physical assault by the security forces, has triggered the worst unrest in Iran since 2019 protests over price hikes, which were the most geographically and demographically diverse since the 1979 revolution.
On Monday, speaking at a military academy graduation, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed the United States and Israel for the unrest, without detailing how foreign powers were responsible for a death of a young woman that has outraged even conservative Iranians.
“I say frankly that these events were planned by the US, Israel and their followers,” he said. “They feel that the country is attaining strength in all spheres, and they cannot tolerate this.
“Lots of riots happen across the world... Has the US president or House of Representatives ever supported those rioters and issued a statement? Has the mass media linked to American capitalism and their mercenaries – such as certain regional governments like the Saudis – ever supported riots in that country?”
Many Iranians dismissed the speech as predictable. One Tehran political science student said in an interview that it was telling that Mr Khamenei chose to give his first speech about the weeks of protests at a military graduation.
“He spoke as the father of a child who committed a very bad crime, and that child is the Islamic Republic,” said the student. “He can’t say, ‘You made a mistake.’ This possibility is not built into the Islamic Republic.”
The latest figures say 133 people have died in protests during which uniformed and plain-clothes security forces have used teargas and live fire.
The gravest violence of the last several weeks has unfolded in the ethnic Baluchi city of Zahedan in the country’s southeast, where anger over Amini’s death has been heightened in the wake of allegations that a senior official of the security forces raped a young Baluch woman. Dozens of people, including the deputy commander of the local Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence branch, died after Friday prayers when security forces and protesters, some armed, clashed in the streets of the small city.
“They shot a child,” a man says in a video posted to the internet, as panicked locals carry a badly bleeding teenager away. “They have put down at least 10 people, and they have shot 30 or 40 people.
Protests over Amini’s death had appeared to be simmering down amid an aggressive and widespread crackdown across the nation that has seen lethal and non-lethal repression tactics and mass arrests of human rights activists, lawyers, celebrities and journalists.
But they took on a renewed vigour beginning on Saturday, with students at university campuses and in high schools leading the charge. Videos showed women taking off their mandatory headscarves and marching down streets, or chanting slogans against the Islamic Republic.
The unrest at Sharif began on Sunday morning with protests on campus, demanding the release of other students who had been detained in the previous weeks. A leader of the campus Basij force posted a video on Monday claiming that the confrontations began after the protesters began chanting slogans against the Islamic Republic and its ruler, Ali Khamenei, whom pro-regime Iranians consider God’s representative on earth.
“If they make slogans against the Islamic Republic, slogans against [Khamenei], we will stand firmly against them,” Mohammad-Reza Ziyai, head of the Basij unit at Sharif University, declared in a video in which he alleged the protesters began the violence.
But a statement posted by Sharif’s Islamic Student Association said protesters had remained peaceful during two days of protests. “Suddenly they faced a barrage of security officers and plainclothes brutes, officers who, in a horrific act, besieged the university and attacked students and professors with all kinds of weapons,” said the statement.
The attack lasted hours and left scores injured and at least 30 arrested. One source close to the students told The Independent security forces stormed the students’ dormitory, stabbing some with knives in an episode that resembles attacks on student quarters during a 1999 uprising at universities.
In-person classes at Sharif have since been suspended and students are to resume their studies online.
Sharif University is famous in Iran and in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics worldwide, and its graduates include top chessmasters, award-winning researchers and executives at international firms such as Google.
As news and video footage of the attack spread online and through word of mouth, Iranians from all over the capital sought to descend upon the campus in support of the students, clogging up highways to the campus. Fearing a disastrous massacre at the country’s equivalent of MIT, the minister of science, technology and research, Mohammad Ali Zolfigol, arrived at the campus late on Sunday to defuse the crisis.
But according to a leaked video of his comments, he blamed the students for the unrest, and told them they were not permitted to say whatever they wanted without facing consequences, prompting an uproar among the students.
“Please don’t take any pictures or videos so that tomorrow you send them to the foreign channels,” he can be heard saying in the leaked footage.