Blasts Hit Iran Ahead of Presidential Vote

A series of explosions rock two cities in Iran, killing at least five people and injuring dozens. Bombs hit first in Ahvaz, near the Iraqi border, and later in Tehran, the capital. Iran is preparing for presidential elections this week.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

A series of explosions rocked two cities in Iran today, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens. It was the worst terrorist attack in the Islamic republic in years. The violence comes as Iran prepares for presidential elections later this week. NPR's Ivan Watson is in Tehran and joins us now.

Hi, Ivan.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Ivan, tell us about the first explosions in the southwest of the country.

WATSON: Well, it appears to have been a coordinated attack in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, which is near the Iraqi border. You had about--at least four bombs exploding over two hours this morning, first targeting the governor's office and then several other government buildings. Policemen, women and children were among the dozens killed and injured in these blasts.

LUDDEN: Now in this very area, there were some other disturbances earlier this year. Remind us what happened.

WATSON: This province of Khuzestan--and Ahvaz is the capital--has been ethnically tense. There is a large Arab population there. The Arabs make up a 3 percent minority of Iran's total population. And following reports or rumors that some planned to bring in more Persian-speaking Iranians to that area, there were several days of violent demonstrations in April. Now it's very murky what exactly took place because Tehran clamped down on information coming from that area, but the reports vary widely of the number killed during those demonstrations; between one and possibly 20 killed with hundreds reported arrested during those incidents.

LUDDEN: There was also an explosion today in the capital, Tehran. What do we know about that?

WATSON: Well, we got reports after nightfall from Iranian state television of an explosion in central Tehran, that some kind of a bomb was hidden in a trash can and at least one bystander was killed in that blast.

LUDDEN: Now presidential elections are scheduled for Friday, and I understand there've been some political protests.

WATSON: Right. Today, you had an unusual protest; it was unauthorized. Several hundred women organized a sit-in in front of the gates of Tehran University in central Tehran. And there they sat and chanted, calling for freedom and equal rights for women. And what was particularly impressive to me was that these women were basically facing down scores of stick-wielding police and undercover security officers. They set up a perimeter around the demonstration, they blocked view of the demonstration with a parked bus and they also physically prevented people from joining. They beat and detained several men and women and several journalists.

A core group of several hundred women, however, did continue their demonstration, sitting on the ground. And they said that they organized this--they capitalized on the fact that the authorities have held back from cracking down on public demonstrations recently in the run-up to next week's presidential elections.

LUDDEN: Ivan, are officials there worried that this violence will affect the elections on Friday?

WATSON: We haven't gotten much official reaction so far. There was an Iranian government official in southwestern Iran, near the site of those explosions, who suggested that these were terrorists who were trying to target Iran's territorial integrity, and he blamed the attacks on people who he said were trying to disrupt presidential elections taking place this coming Friday.

LUDDEN: NPR's Ivan Watson in Tehran, thank you.

WATSON: You're welcome, Jennifer.

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