Photo by Siamak Namazi. See more here
Khatami addresses increasingly outspoken students
By Afshin Molavi
With photograohs by Siamak Namazi
December 13, 1999
Like a rock star performing before adoring fans, President Mohammad
Khatami took to the stage on Sunday, offering his familiar, much-loved
tunes of democracy, freedom, and liberal reform to a cheering, banner-waving
throng of approximately 15,000 Iranian university students in his first
major domestic speech since the jailing of a key ally by a conservative
court. (Exclusive photos by Siamak Namazi
"We are seeking to build a system based on the will of the people,"
Khatami said to deafening cheers from the highly-charged students packed
shoulder-to-shoulder into a hot and crowded hall at Tehran's Science and
Technology University. "We are determined to build this model society
by fighting against exploitation and dictatorship in the hope of establishing
a free society and government," he added.
The highly anticipated speech touched on all of Khatami's major political
themes of democratic reform, freedom of expression, and political liberalization
which won him overwhelming support among Iran's youth in his presidential
campaign more than two years ago, boosting the reformist cleric to a 70
percent landslide victory.
Since then, political and social freedoms have measurably improved despite
powerful conservative opposition which has led to the jailing of key Khatami
allies, the closing of reformist newspapers, and violent encounters on
university campuses across Iran between pro-reform students and hard-line
After the recent high-profile jailing of a leading pro-Khatami cleric,
Abdollah Nouri, political observers were eager to hear from the president
in a major speech. Students began arriving two hours early to fill the
hall for the scheduled 9 a.m. speech; the press box was jammed, and television
cameras dotted the hall. By 9:30, the hall was overflowing and some 5,000
students listened from outside on speakers.
Khatami did not dissapoint his supporters. "We need the active
participation of students on the political scene," Khatami said, in
a speech regularly interrupted by applause and chants of "We love
you Khatami!". "If we want to achieve freedom and independence,
this can only be done by the active participation of the people,"
he added, urging the students to consider themselves important players
in the movement and avoid thinking of him as "a hero."
Last summer, Iran's students erupted in protests across the country
after police forces, controlled by conservatives, raided a Tehran University
dormitory killing one student and injuring scores of others. The street
protests that followed rocked the foundations of the Islamic Republic,
spiraling into chaos and violence as plain clothes security forces engaged
in pitched battles with students and scores of disaffected, unemployed
youth in Tehran. Witnesses to the student protests in the northern city
of Tabriz say that the security crackdown there was particularly brutal.
Investigations into the attack on the Tehran dormitory and the violent
encounters with student protesters across the country have been slow, leaving
many students dissatisfied. In response to an agitated question from a
student concerning the ongoing probe, Khatami received loud cheers when
he said: "I am not satisfied with the way the investigation has been
conducted. There were many elements who tried to stymie the investigations."
Earlier, he said: "The university dorm incident is a stain of disgrace."
As the students waved copies of banned reformist newspapers, Khatami
repeatedly reminded them that the costs of attaining freedom and democracy
are high and their vigilant political activism is needed. Occasionally,
small groups of hard-line anti-reform students sought to interrupt the
speech with chants of "Death to America," but they were repeatedly
shouted down and pelted with balls of paper by the overwhelming pro-Khatami
and pro-reform crowd.
"Today, we need to talk about life," Khatami said, in response
to the hard-line "Death to America" chant, receiving booming
cheers from the crowd. "It is better for us to say long live independence
and long live Iran," he added, eliciting thunderous applause that
shook the ceiling rafters of the hall.
Khatami did, however, make several significant references to the United
States in his speech, noting that "the wall of mistrust" between
the two nations is largely due to Washington's "incorrect" policy
of "domination" toward Iran in recent history.
"The Iranian nation feels that from August 19, 1953 until the victory
of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the United States dominated its fate,"
Khatami said, referring to the 1953 CIA-supported coup d'etat against nationalist
Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq that restored the pro-American
Shah to power until a broad coalition of opposition groups toppled him
Khatami welcomed recent comments by President Bill Clinton acknowledging
Iranian grievances, calling it "an important confession." President
Clinton said Iran "had received quite a lot of abuse from Western
countries" over the years. The reformist cleric said, however, "if
it is a political game, it will solve no problem."
The students, however, were far more interested in domestic politics
than foreign relations. Repeatedly, they chanted slogans calling for the
freedom of jailed reformist clerics Abdollah Nouri and Mohsen Kadivar and
the dissolution of the conservative clerical court that convicted the two
Nouri and Kadivar were convicted for their expressed views that threatened
the heart of Iran's conservative theocratic system, calling for differing
religious interpretations of government, views that even Khatami has never
Interestingly, the students also took sharp aim at former president
and centrist political leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, repeatedly chanting
slogans against the still powerful cleric whom they fear may become the
next speaker of parliament, thus slowing the reform process.
The rise in student activism in Iran after years of relative quiet since
the 1979 revolution has sent fears in the conservatrive establishment,
who are well aware of the power of Iranian student protests. In the 1970's,
the university became a hotbed of protest against the autocratic rule of
the late Shah of Iran, playing a key role in his overthrow.
Student activism in the 1970's was colored by radical leftist and anti-imperialist
views and only took on an Islamist flavor in the late stages of the revolution.
Che Guevera was a hero to many, Ayatollah Khomeini a relative unknown.
In 1980, all universities were closed down for nearly four years to purge
the campus of leftist and Communist sympathizers among professors and students.
Today, dissent has returned to the campus with a vengeance. Mingling
with the crowds of students, they displayed a palpable sense of confidence."There
is no turning back now," one student said, surrounded by head-nodding
friends and colleagues. "We will fight for democratic reform to our
last breath. We are young. Time and numbers are on our side. I am sure
that my children will live in a democratic Iran." (Exclusive
photos by Siamak Namazi here)
The writer is a Tehran-based journalist.