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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
Iranian riots: Not just about football
Iranian youths celebrate victory in a World Cup qualifier against the United Arab Emirates
Thursday's celebrations turned sour
Jim Muir

On three separate nights in the past week there have been serious disturbances in the Iranian capital Tehran and in other cities following World Cup football qualification matches.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Crowds have chanted insults against Ayatollah Khamenei
There have been violent scenes as riot police dispersed crowds of football fans from streets and squares where they had collected, sometimes chanting slogans against the Islamic regime.

Hundreds of people have been arrested.

The disturbances are certainly serious but whether they actually threaten the foundations of the Islamic republic is another matter.

There are clearly many elements involved in what is happening.

Simple hooliganism?

Football crowds can be a problem in any country and Iran is no exception. In the disturbances of last Sunday and Monday nights, after the Iranian team lost against Bahrain, there was obviously an element of hooliganism as people attacked banks and other targets related to the establishment.

There is a lot of pent-up frustration among the vast legions of young Iranians who make up more than half the country's population, but many of those who got caught up in the violence were simply out for a lark, indulging in the rare luxury of taking part in a mass event, letting off some steam.

The late Shah of Iran and his wife, Queen Soraya
There have even been chants in support of the ousted monarchy
Many of those, including women and journalists who have been brutally beaten by security forces, were doing nothing more than just being there.

But in some places the crowds chanted anti-regime slogans, including some insulting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and others supporting the monarchy which the Islamic Revolution ousted in 1979.

This touches a raw nerve as far as the authorities are concerned. Each of the recent events has been preceded by a barrage of propaganda from television and radio stations, and internet websites operated from abroad by exiled Iranian opposition groups.

They have openly incited people to go out en masse and demonstrate their hostility to the Islamic regime.

That is enough to ensure a heavy security presence and little tolerance, even for harmless high-spirited assemblies, let alone for people attacking public buildings or chanting slogans deriding the leader.

It can be no coincidence that there is a renewed campaign to confiscate unauthorised satellite dishes which enable people here to see these anti-regime broadcasts from abroad.

Mass disaffection

In terms of the way power works, though, there is little reason to believe these opposition groups amount to a serious threat.

Iranian women voting
Recent elections showed 85% want change
What is serious is the level of public disaffection, the social and political alienation, especially among young people, that the disturbances reveal both in Tehran and other cities - feelings which are clearly being aggravated by the harsh state response.

Recent elections have shown clearly that 85% of Iranians want change. Despite big election victories for reformists, change has been largely blocked by entrenched hard-liners.

That frustration is clearly a major factor underlying these disturbances and though there is no clear vehicle for it to reach political expression, it is bound to be felt increasingly in one way or another the longer it is denied.

See also:

23 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iran football clashes continue
22 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iran football fans clash with police
31 Aug 01 | Middle East
Iran riot prompts 150 arrests
22 Apr 01 | Middle East
Iran court sentences 100 rioters
13 Nov 00 | Middle East
Iran riots blamed on hardliners
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