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Iranian student faction plans civil disobedience

By Geneive Abdo in Tehran
The Guardian
November 21, 2000

Leaders of sections of the Iranian national student movement, which was largely responsible for Mohammad Khatami's rise to power, have declared his presidency a failure and are vowing to take radical action to bring about change.

Students in the Office to Consolidate Unity, which claims 500,000 members, accuse the president of passing up every opportunity to force the conservatives who have reasserted their control over the state to come to heel.

As a result, a growing number of campus activists want to desert Mr Khatami and form an alternative organisation to promote "civil disobedience".

That would include strikes at universities and in bazaars aimed at forcing a confrontation with the security forces, something President Khatami has tried to prevent.

"We have watched the conservatives attack civil institutions. They closed all the reformists newspapers. They shot Saeed Hajjarian [a top presidential aide who was paralysed in an attempt on his life last year]," said a student leader in the group, who did not wish to be named.

"Now we think that anyone who [subscribes] to passivity is helping the conservatives. The government should have helped political parties develop and social organisations grow," he said.

"Instead, the reform movement became too passive and moved backward."

The group, which is known in Farsi as Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, comprises Islamic student organisations on about 60 campuses.

It has been a formidable force in Iranian politics since the early days of the Islamic Revolution - its forerunners helped to bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

In 1996 Mohammad Khatami, an intellectual cleric then on the fringes of politics, appeared at the Daftar's headquarters in Tehran, produced a miniature constitution, and vowed to enforce the rule of law.

With that promise, the group rallied behind his presidential bid and he won by a landslide in 1997.

Since then students have sacrificed their lives in demonstrations supporting Mr Khatami's ideas of a "civil society", only to find that the president condemning their protests in order to avoid a showdown with conservatives.

When students demonstrated in July last year after conservatives closed a leading progressive newspaper, they were beaten by the police, the Islamic militia, and the elite Revolutionary Guards.

Scores were injured and an unknown number died in five days of unrest in Tehran. At the same time an even bloodier protest erupted in the town of Tabriz.

The parliament prepared a detailed report exposing the culprits of the violence in Tabriz, but sources say it remains top secret because the government fears its contents will provoke a national crisis.

The growing split in the ranks of the Daftar became public after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened in August to order parliament to quash a bill aimed at reviving the reformist press, said Ibrahim Sheikh, another student leader.

"Some students have reached the conclusion that elections don't matter and they want more radical solutions," said Mr Sheikh, who represents the half of the student movement that still supports President Khatami.

But he said that only a gradual approach to reform could bring about lasting change.

"Some say no generation can tolerate two revolutions," he said. "So the only recourse the reformers have is a peaceful atmosphere."


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