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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
US accused over Tehran protests

By Pam O'Toole
BBC regional analyst

This week has seen several nights of protest in Iran, with students shouting slogans against both the country's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the democratically elected president, Mohammad Khatami.

Some people said they had joined the protests after hearing about them on satellite TV channels run by Iranian exiles in the US.

Iran's intelligence minister has accused such channels of instigating the protests; Ayatollah Khamenei accused Washington itself of seeking to stir up trouble.

Protests in Iran
Exiles claim their satellite TV stations prompted the protests

The demonstrators were clearly frustrated at the slow pace of reform in Iran, and some did seem to be looking to the United States for some kind of support.

"There has to be a change," said one protester.

"No-one likes this regime any more. If America helps us, it will happen."

Bush appeal

Professor Raymond Tanter, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes calls from US officials for ordinary Iranians to begin pressing for change have had an effect:

"President [George W] Bush gave a speech in which he said he would go beyond the so-called moderates in the government of Iran.

The Iranian people don't need to be agitated to go to the streets. They know what they want
Hoshang Amir Ahmadi
Iranian academic
"He's already given up on the hardliners in the first place and gone right to the Iranian people, and some of the words that President Bush has uttered in his speeches are ricocheting throughout Iran and coming back out of the mouths of the demonstrators, such as the phrase 'the unelected mullahs of Iran'."

Phrases like that have been beamed into Iran by satellite TV channels, particularly those run by exiled Iranian opposition groups in the United States.

They have been calling on people to join the demonstrations.

Reza Pahlavi, the US-based son of the former Shah of Iran, is a regular and prominent contributor to some of these channels.

"The basic message is about liberty and freedom and the Iranian people today have taken every step to reach that freedom by means of civil disobedience.

"The campaign of non-violent civil disobedience is now well on its way, the momentum has picked up."

'Pure propaganda'

But Iranian academics tend to reject the idea that the protests have been stirred up by the satellite channels.

Bush on TV in Iran
Some claim Bush's message is 'ricocheting through Iran'
Hoshang Amir Ahmadi - a professor at Rutgers University in the US who travels frequently between America and Iran - says that while such channels do have some effect, for instance broadcasting news about the existence of such demonstrations, their influence is not so strong.

"These are very unintellectual and very superficial channels; they have no analysis, they are propaganda channels - pure propaganda - and you know, propaganda has impact up to certain point, beyond which, it doesn't go.

"The Iranian people these days are quite intellectual. They have been involved in politics for 22, 24 years. They don't need to be agitated to go to the streets. They know what they want ..."

Many Iranian academics believe that the demonstrations are a genuine reflection of the frustrations felt by ordinary citizens.

They voted in the reformist President Mohammad Khatami six years ago, only to see his reform programme blocked by hardline conservatives.

Now some former supporters appear to be giving up on the president.

Student divide

But Sadeq Ziba Kalam of Tehran University adds that some people may also have been influenced by watching the Americans overthrow an unpopular regime in neighbouring Iraq.

"In a way, it has politicised the younger generation of Iranians more than they before. But somehow, it's my own impression from students I'm talking to that they are split.

"The younger students are saying, why don't Americans attack Iran and get rid of this clerical regime.

"However, the more moderate students say no, no, no, it would be totally wrong for the Americans to attack us and not only would we not achieve anything, but we would lose a lot of what we have achieved during the past 24 years as result of the Islamic revolution."

The US might be hoping that ordinary Iranians are starting a process which will ultimately change their country's policies.

But if there is any evidence that the US is trying to force the issue, it could backfire.

Many pro-reformists in Iran fear that if the Americans are seen to be piling on the pressure, it could help the conservatives to rally the Iranian people behind them - to the further detriment of the pro-reformist president.

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