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 thugs.
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 in 1979.
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 men.
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 articulated.
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 )
The writer is a Tehran-based journalist.