(CNS) - Iranian riot police clashed with protesting students in central Tehran Tuesday, as the country's fundamentalist religious leader accused the United States of financing unrest he said was aimed at toppling the Islamic regime.
Eyewitnesses said that despite protestors' appeals to the police not to intervene, police used batons to break up the gathering, which was held in defiance of a government ban Monday on all unauthorized demonstrations.
Tuesday's was the latest in a wave of protests which began with a small press freedom sit-in on campus that was violently broken up by police and Islamic vigilantes last Thursday.
Tehran University students have been joined by other residents of the city, as the protests have grown in size and become more radical in tone. Students in several other cities have held solidarity rallies.
Monday night saw police use teargas to seize control of areas around the campus, with vigilantes, some armed with sticks and knives, playing a supporting role. Clashes were also reported in a square in central Tehran.
The students have won cautious support from President Mohammed Khatami, a relatively moderate cleric elected in 1997 with strong support from student and women voters.
Khatami has, however, urged students to "allow law and order to be established," and he warned against those he said were "trying to fish in troubled waters and take advantage of the situation to reach their political ends."
Supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who outranks Khatami and is said to represent the reactionary element in government and security forces, has also expressed reservations about last week's raid on campus by police and militia groups, which left at least one student dead.
But in a speech published in Tuesday's Tehran Times and broadcast repeatedly on state radio and television, Khamenei warned students they may be exploited by foreign "enemies" who had targeted the national security of the state.
He said foreign elements had infiltrated the student community, and worked hard to set students against the Islamic revolution.
Noting the role of students in the 1979 revolution that replaced the Shah with an Islamist state, Khamenei said the enemy that was "driven out of the country by the Islamic Revolution 20 years ago ... [was] making attempts to infiltrate the country."
Khamenei identified the enemy as "spying networks" which he said were "the designers of these plots."
"Where is the money allocated by the U.S. Congress to campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran spent? No doubt that the budget and a sum several times this budget are spent on such schemes against Iran."
But he said the "dream of the U.S. returning to Iran is a pipe dream which will never come true."
He urged students should be vigilant and identify "the enemy" in their ranks.
"Strangers disguised as friends come among you. Identify them. You should look out for hidden hands. No one is admired for negligence."
"Reserve your power for the day on which the country will need it, the day on which the young and faithful forces should stand against the enemy."
Khamenei's stance is receiving backing from other "hardline" elements in Iranian society, including media outlets, senior clerics and the Islamic Propagation Organization, which is calling for a massive counter-demonstration on Wednesday.
The English-language Iran Daily called on students to "prevent the presence of outsiders among their ranks [and to] give due consideration to the implications of this period and prioritize Islamic values and revolutionary principles above everything else."
Analysts said Tuesday that Khatami if unable to bring the student unrest under control, he may give Khamenei the ammunition he needs to suspend reforms, on the grounds they are destabilizing the country.
If, on the other hand, Khatami is able to secure order, this will give him a powerful bargaining chip in his struggles with the "hardliners."
"Who brings the demonstrations under control and by what means will have as much
impact on Iran's power struggle as the demonstrations themselves," said Stratfor, the Texas-based intelligence analysis firm.