New pressure on Iran’s student activists

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Ever since Student Day, December 6, pressure on Iranian student activists and organizations has increased. The main pro-democratic student body – the Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, or Office to Strengthen Unity (DTV) – has been outlawed, key student activists have been arrested and the regime media is preparing the ground for further clampdown. With a presidential election on the horizon, the situation for student activists is worsened day by day.

On January 21, Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Science, Mohammad-Mahdi Zahedi, declared that it was illegal to have any contact with the (genuine) DTV (also known as the ‘Allameh faction, which separated itself in 2002 from a pro-regime splinter group, also known as the Shiraz faction). The Minister added that “this faction” had already been “declared illegal” four years ago and that its members would not be allowed to function under the name of DTV. This means that if the students are to continue their activities, they will need to apply for registration under a new name – something government officials appointed by Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader will surely and easily reject. Indeed, pro-democratic students applying for a license to open a new organization have been rejected several times in the past, even during Khatami’s tenure. No doubt they would also be rejected today. Without a legally licensed organizational framework, the student activists will be effectively outlawed and even easier prey for authorities cracking down on oppositional voices amongst Iran’s two million university students.

However, as mentioned, this is not the first time pro-regime entities have tried to ‘coup’ DTV. After a clash with pro-reformist students in 2002, conformist students split with the main group. Soon, this splinter organization was taken over by ultra-conservative students who declared themselves ‘the real’ and ‘legal DTV’, and started to issue communiqués in DTV’s name. The pro-democratic forces continued their activities in the Islamic Students Associations and as the ‘Allameh faction’ of DTV. However, this time, authorities can hit DTV hard and completely disband the organization: indeed, there is practically no one to stop them.

In a lengthy interview, former DTV leader Abdollah Mo‘meni argued that the authorities are trying to “eliminate the authentic student movement”, just as Ahmadinejad’s government has suppressed other parts of civil society in recent years. According to Mo‘meni, the pro-regime faction of DTV only constitutes 3,5% of the organization’s members, yet they receive significant financial and logistical help from the Ministry of Research. To Mo‘meni, there is no doubt that the political rulers of Iran are trying to “steal the good name” of DTV to improve their image.

In yesterday’s Kayhân – seen as a mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i – a lengthy ‘report’ described in details how some student journals and newsletters are “poisoning university atmosphere” by criticizing the government and its instrumental use of Islam, its lacking respect for human rights and its oppressive policies against universities. Worst of all, reported Kayhân, were those students who questioned or even insulted the Supreme Leader.

It can have severe consequences to be accused of disrespecting the Leader. Thus, we can expect that the clampdown will be intensified over the coming weeks and months as we approach the presidential elections. It now seems 99% sure that Mohammad Khatami (and not Abdollah Nuri or Mir-Hossein Musavi) will run for the ‘reformist’ faction. He will need all the support he can get – especially that of the student movement: after all, it was due to groups such as the DTV that Khatami won in 1997. Khatami will simply not be able to win the June 2009 elections without the support of Iran’s young generation. It remains to be seen if Khatami understands that it is now time to stand up for the students. Otherwise, they will surely not stand up for him.

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