by Rasmus Christian Elling.
Today, it is Ruz-e dâneshju or ‘Student Day’ in Iran: it is time to reassess the status of and situation for the Iranian student movement.
Revolution, reformism, repression, revival
Since ‘modern’ universities were established in Iran in the 1920s and 30s, they have been key centers of political dissidence, arenas for ideological battles and homes to alternative voices. Universities played central roles in the revolutionary movement that ousted the Shah in the late 1970s and in the reformist movement that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Tehran Spring’ of 1997-99, it seemed as if a democratic student movement was ready to burst out of university and revolutionize Iranian society.
However, the severe clampdown on students – and in particular, the violent attack on Tehran University dormitories in July 1999 that resulted in widespread riots throughout Iran – curtailed this movement. The repression eventually seemed close to completely wipe out the Iranian student movement through juridical and extra-juridical measures, violence and threats. The state apparatus placed legal obstacles on student groups and partially seized their organizations, harassed and intimidated their spokespersons, and closed down their facilities and newsletters.
However, instead of disintegrating, the key organizations of the movement – the so-called Islamic Student Societies (anjoman-hâ-ye eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) and their umbrella organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity (daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, hereafter DTV) – underwent a painful divorce from the parliamentary reform movement, its institutions and its head, Khatami. DTV succeeded in distancing itself from the waning image of the reformists and has since struggled to transform itself into a platform for a wide variety of grass roots and civil society groups. The aim of DTV today is to reach out beyond the walls of universities and into Iranian society.
While the process of bridging the intellectual and theoretical discourse of a student movement with general discontent in other layers of society has been quite difficult, the greatest challenge came with the election of the neo-conservative hard-liner Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Since this election, government has sought to ‘re-Islamize’ and control universities by discharging critical professors and appointing loyal managers, by segregating facilities in certain universities, by installing CCTV surveillance and by burying ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq War right on university campuses and thus imposing the militant ideology on students. Student activists all over Iran have faced official and unofficial reprimands, abductions to secret interrogation facilities, mock trials, torture, incommunicado detention and heavy sentences that span from exclusion from university and forced transfer to other universities to fines and jail sentences. Individual students are even given ‘stars’ depending on his/her level of political activity in a ludicrous evaluation scheme aimed at intimidating and punishing student activists.
However, the difficulties facing the student movement are not just political. Students are also confronted with a wide array of problems including the fierce competition for enrollment in prestigious universities, the dwindling quality of teaching and research in Iranian universities, the severe problem of brain drain, social problems such as drug addiction and suicide as well as issues related to everyday student life such as appalling conditions in dormitories, lack of pastime facilities and, of course, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.
Yet despite all these obstacles and challenges, there is still good reason to argue that student activism is alive and kicking in Iran today. Indeed, students have staged small but vocal demonstrations and sit-ins, and some have even attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies directly. Recently, it seems students have become particularly active. Tensions have been felt as far away as Sistan-Baluchestan on Iran’s southeastern border, where students have clashed with security forces. In the provincial capital Hamadan, students have reported a wave of intimidation and threats by local authorities that are concerned with student activities.
Student Day 2008
Thus, the Iranian student activists are to mark Student Day today – a tradition that dates back to 1953 when 3 students from Tehran University were killed by the Shah’s security forces. This year, students have not limited themselves to Student Day itself but have indeed declared December 2 to 9 a ‘Students Week’. The last month or so, Iranian media have claimed that students are secretly preparing unrest and mayhem around Students Day. A Basiji student group has claimed that ‘violence-seeking’ individuals are ‘planning riots’ on Khajeh Nasir University in Tehran. And on the conservative website Tâbnâk, journalists reported that ‘some domestic extremist groups’ have been planning to provoke unrest, including melli-mazhhabi proponents (Religious-Nationalist, i.e. the domestic opposition of moderate ‘Islamo-nationalists’), who have allegedly called for a student-led riot like that of July 1999. The journalists even claimed that students from ethnic minorities studying in Tehran are planning disturbances to further their ethno-nationalist aims and that DTV has been in contact with opposition activists in exile. DTV denied this report and criticized it together with a series of accusations and rumors published by state-run dailies and news agencies.
With the severe security measures installed by the neo-con government and its cohorts in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias and the police forces in mind, it is difficult to see how students could indeed create such unrest. ”Students are under attack from all sides by the government and the fundamentalist media”, Bahare Hedayat from DTV’s public relations bureau stated recently. Hedayat, who has been imprisoned for her activities several times, argued that “the stored-up concerns and discontent amongst students over the last three years” were the result of “the clampdown by authorities outside the universities” on student activists and “the erroneous [university] management of officials selected by the Ministry of Science”.
According to Hedayat, ‘unrest’ is simply a negative term hyped by media controlled by ruling forces who are afraid of student activism: “The sick minds who cannot tolerate even a student protest gathering in university, are referring to peaceful meetings and protests within the milieu of the university as ‘unrest’”, she stated. Even ISNA – the Iranian Students News Agency, which was founded to reflect the voices of students – has “been turned into a platform for anti-student organizations”, Hedayat argued.
Student activists, in particular those at Amir Kabir Technical University, have reported that pro-government groups, Basiji students and university authorities are coordinating a counter-strike in case of student unrest on or after Student Day. These reports surfaced while DTV a week ago published its call for marking Student Day. In a thinly veiled attack on Ahmadinejad’s government, DTV stated: “[O]nce again, we will rise and sound the call of protest against oppressors who are busy stripping Iran and the Iranians of their national resources, honor and integrity, and whose erroneous policies have resulted in pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, disregard for civic rights, destruction of Iranians’ prestige all over the world, international sanctions, unemployment, and thousands of other problems”. DTV has called for a demonstration in Tehran University tomorrow and Khatami has said that enshâ‘allâh, he will come to speak. Four years ago, students heckled Khatami when he came to Tehran University on Student Day. It could become an interesting moment when Khatami and the students come face to face.
The students and ‘the reformists’
With the 2009 presidential elections looming on the horizon, the so-called ‘reformists’ seems to be looking to the student movement, hoping it could again play a significant role. Indeed, the ‘reformists’ would benefit from a re-activation of the huge potential among Iran’s two million university students. Yet, significant change is needed: since Khatami’s ‘lame duck years’ as president, and in particular, his reluctant and belated response to the state clampdown on students in 1999 and subsequently, the activist milieu has been marked by a profound skepticism towards the ‘reformists’. Indeed, the spokeswoman of the DTV stated that “reformists should know that the students are watching their behaviors and will not forget”. In other words, reformists will certainly have to redefine their ambitions and strategy in order to attract the much-needed votes of Iranian students. It seems the students, despite previous boycotts, have not yet rejected the idea of participating in the elections – so it might pay off for reformists.
However, when evaluating the ‘potentials’ of the student movement, one should keep in mind that since they ‘divorced’ from the parliamentary reformist faction, DTV and its local cells have focused on social, cultural and civil society activities – indeed, DTV declared in 2005 that it would henceforth function as a ‘Civil Society Watch’. In an interview with Roozonline.com two days ago, DTV secretary, Mehdi Arabshahi, stated that the new DTV would not repeat the fault of earlier generations in this organization: that is, to act as a political party and to play the role of opposition within the boundaries of the political system. Thus, we should not expect the students to act as a sort of ‘youth division’ of any political faction, including the reformist, in the future. Indeed, stated Arabshahi, the new DTV would not repeat the old mistake of seeing elections as “a remedy for all the nation’s troubles”.
Yet, at the same time, Arabshahi would not rule out the possibility that the election of a new government could bring about better conditions for social movements. Hedayat, the spokeswoman mentioned earlier, also explained in a separate interview that the situation had changed dramatically since the DTV boycott of the presidential elections in 2005: now, said Hedayat, a fresh analysis was needed. In other words, DTV might not boycott elections. Whatever the DTV chooses to do, Hedayat stated that the organization would strive to have its demands and issues reflected during the elections.
DTV and the student movement in general has been criticized for not participating in the 2005 elections and thereby having contributed to the loss of votes for the reformists and thus, indirectly paving the way for a neo-con victory. However, student activist spokespersons stand by their old decision. The former DTV figurehead, ‘Abdollah Mo‘meni, who is now spokesman for DTV’s alumni division, Advâr-e tahkim, stated in an interview that he would defend the decision and that the failure of reformists to mobilize voters could not be reduced to the role of students. Indeed, said Mo‘meni, the reformists had much graver problems than DTV’s election boycott: the fact that they couldn’t even agree on a single candidate to represent them, that they had made their constituencies disillusioned and that they participated willingly in a ‘commando-election’ – these were more likely the reasons for their failure.
In other words, the reformists will have to ‘deliver’ if they want to have any hope of regaining the confidence of the young generation: they will need a strong and charismatic leader, a clear and resolute program and they will need to address the key issues championed by social movements, the women rights movement and the student movement.
A student movement?
So, the question remains: can we speak of an Iranian student movement today? ‘Ali-Reza Raja‘i, a melli-mazhhabi, recently argued that “the activist atmosphere has been restricted to some extent. However, it is perfectly clear that if there is an opening of the political environment, [the student] movement will take on more visible forms”. In other words, Raja‘i thinks that the student movement right now is not a movement per se, but rather a potential movement waiting for a window of opportunity to become active again and develop into a broad-based movement.
However, the wounds inflicted over the years upon the student movement, and indeed the tormented history of democratic struggle in Iran, has left many pessimistic. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that it will take more than a new government and more than a student movement to change Iran. “Democratic struggle is eating itself from within”, wrote the renown dissident Taqi Rahmani recently: without an active civil society and without organizations representing, for example, professional, labor or ethnic minority interests, any democratic movement is doomed to failure, Rahmani argued. This is why Iranians are prone to be disillusioned when they see that their votes have not brought about a miracle. This is why the Iranian voters are tired and weary: the constant impediments and numerous obstacles placed in front of democratic movements by the rich and powerful elites throughout history. Only by creating a strong and vibrant civil society can Iran move towards democracy.
While DTV has yet to announce its position vis-à-vis the presidential elections, it is clear that people like Raja‘i are warning the students not to boycott the elections. Indeed, Raja‘i and his ilk – the tolerated ‘opposition’, ‘the reformists’ and ‘the moderates’ – still believe that it is possible to reform and change Iranian politics and society through elections. Even though DTV earlier seemed to reject the possibility of the Islamic Republic reforming in a democratic direction, they have, as stated, not rejected a possible participation in next year’s elections. It remains to be seen what the student activist milieu would do if Khatami – or another key reformist figure – was to run for president again; and it remains to be seen what measures the neo-conservative government and its supporters in the clerical and paramilitary elites would take to obstruct the reformists. No matter what happens, it is too early to rule out a revival of the Iranian student movement.