Iranian students call president "dictator", scuffle

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TEHRAN, Oct 8 (Reuters) Dozens of students scuffled with hardline supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today on Tehran University campus and chanted ''Death to the dictator'' ahead of a speech there by the Iranian president.

''Revolutionary president, we support you,'' the hardline students shouted back, pushing and shoving those who were voicing opposition to Ahmadinejad, a Reuters witness said.

Police in riot gear gathered outside the campus.

The president was due to deliver a speech at the university later today to mark the start of the academic year. Liberal-minded students and academics have criticised the president for clamping down on dissent on Iranian campuses.

The president and his government insist they support free speech and constructive opposition, but students complain that some of those who have spoken out against the president have been detained or blacklisted from university courses.

When Ahmadinejad was speaking at another university in December, he faced students who sought to disrupt the speech by hurling firecrackers and burning his picture. On that occasion, officials said the president reacted calmly.

The president, who tends to polarise opinion in the Islamic Republic by berating the West and with his populist agenda, was due to give a speech at Tehran University last week but officials said it was postponed because he was feeling unwell.

Some students gathered at Tehran University today shouted: ''Detained students should be released''. Ahmadinejad's supporters chanted: ''Hypocrites, leave the university'' and also carried banners with religious slogans.

More than 100 students, who tried to leave the campus to continue the protest, briefly scuffled with campus police who were stopping them. ''Ahmadinejad, source of pressure and discrimination,'' the students shouted.

GAUGING SUPPORT In the late 1990s, students formed a bastion of support for the social and political reforms promoted by then president, Mohammad Khatami. But many became disillusioned later as promised reforms failed to materialise.

In 1999, a student protest against the closure of a pro-reform newspaper was suppressed by baton-wielding thugs. Pro-democracy students have paid a heavy price since then and many of their leaders have fled Iran or been jailed.

Ahmadinejad swept to office in 2005 vowing to share out Iran's oil wealth fairly and a return to revolutionary ideals.

His critics say his policies have stoked inflation and fiery speeches have provoked Western nations to impose sanctions.

Iran is embroiled in a nuclear row with the West, which accuses the Islamic Republic of seeking atomic bombs. Tehran denies the charge and has rejected demands to stop the work. As a result of its refusal, UN sanctions have been imposed.

Gauging popular support for the president is difficult in the absence of reliable opinion polls. Anecdotal evidence suggests he has many backers in the provinces, particularly poorer areas that have benefited from state largesse. But grumbling in the cities has become vocal.

Ahmadinejad's backers were trounced in local council polls in December, particularly in big urban centres like Tehran. His backers face another test in the March parliamentary election.

''I did not vote for him but I was not against him (in the 2005 presidential vote). If I was doubtful last time, I am completely sure this time that I will not vote for him,'' said a 22-year-old Tehran University student, asking not to be named.

Yahya Saffarian, a student who has been suspended from his studies, told an Iranian rights group meeting this month that the government was seeking to remove opponents from campuses.

''If education is a right, we will not give it up ... and if it is a privilege, it seems a specific group is only entitled to that,'' he said.

REUTERS PD KN1515

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