Saeed Razavi-Faqih is a student at Tarbiat-Modarres University in Tehran and a member of the steering council of the main national student organization, the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (OCU). Razavi-Faqih has played a key role in the leadership of Iranian student protests in December 2002 and previously. Kaveh Ehsani, a contributing editor to the Middle East Report) spoke with him by telephone on July 8, 2003, the day before the anniversary of major demonstrations in 1999, which were forcibly repressed by the regime.
Many expected that rallies commemorating the 1999 events would rock Tehran again, especially after a dramatic series of student protests over tuition hikes in the month of June. Reports from Iran conflict as to the size of demonstrations on July 9, but analysts concur that they were much smaller than anticipated. A crackdown by the regime was likely one reason. Razavi-Faqih, for instance, was arrested on July 10 and remains in detention.
This interview first appeared on the web site of Middle East Report, to which I am a contributing editor.
What was the source of the June 2003 disturbances around the universities in Tehran and other cities?
The June clashes around the universities should be seen as linked to similar events that occurred in the late fall of 2002, when the death sentence against Prof. Hashem Aghajari [on charges of blasphemy] led to an unprecedented explosion of spontaneous student protests across the country that lasted for more than two weeks in December. Aghajari's sentence was reduced, but he was kept in jail.
By the time the February 2003 elections for local councils took place, a noticeable shift in attitude had taken place. For the first time in the past six years, the student organizations refused to nominate candidates or to actively campaign in the elections. The main reason for this apathy was that rank-and-file university students no longer believed that reforms or elections could bring about the political changes they desire.
Mohammad Khatami, the elected president, is not effective, and the parliament has not been able to implement its reformist agenda. So by the time the universities were engulfed yet again in a wave of national protests this June, the students were no longer willing to accept that working within the framework of the reformist movement would satisfy their demands.
Were the June protests different from the student protests over the Aghajari trial in 2002?
Yes, there were some significant differences. Last fall, ordinary people showed a lot of sympathy for students, but would not get directly involved in the demonstrations themselves. This time around, popular participation was much more significant. Often student organizers lost control of the protests.
The police managed to bring the area surrounding the student dormitories under control, but then the protests spread elsewhere in the city, to faraway neighborhoods like Narmak or Tehran-Pars where no students live. Now we have a situation where, following a small spark, the general public turned against a rigid system that is unwilling to bow to popular demands.
In July 1999, the students were provoked into confrontation by thugs loyal to regime conservatives. Did that happen this time as well?
There is evidence of that, and we suspect an attempt to set a trap for student leaders, political activists and parliamentary deputies. We need to be alert to neutralize this conspiracy. The mood among students is highly explosive, and any collective action can be derailed easily into uncontrolled radicalism.
The problem is that it is the other side that ultimately benefits from this situation. We must be vigilant and avoid getting into a situation that is out of our control. Our initial plans to turn the commemoration of the July 9, 1999 events into a large and peaceful event were dealt a serious blow.
Do you believe that the recent clashes signal a new political situation?
What we have realized is that the majority of students no longer want to maintain any dialogue with the regime. Previously, the students distinguished between the reformers in government, whom the students helped to elect to office and with whom they shared many concerns, and the hardliners, whom they had not elected and who were intent on maintaining their authoritarian grip on power.
But the events of the past months, and especially these past few weeks [as supra-parliamentary conservative bodies have blocked legislation enhancing Khatami's powers], have deeply changed this attitude. Students believe that some of the government reformers are sincere in their commitment to change, but are simply powerless to deliver on their promises. Their presence in the government only prolongs the life of a system that is incapable of reform.
Following the recent attacks on students by vigilantes and thugs, the students wrote a frankly worded letter to Khatami, challenging him either to stop these violations and punish the culprits, or to resign and avoid legitimizing this regime. This is an important new step for the student movement, because prior to this point the student movement acted within the system, as a part of the reform movement.
Following these recent events, the student movement has disassociated itself from the regime altogether. Some of us even do not want to stay within the existing framework of the Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU) [an Islamic students' association, and one of the few autonomous political organizations allowed to operate in universities], because it is an official institution sanctioned by the regime.
I think these recent confrontations contained a serious warning from the people to the government of the Islamic Republic. It was really significant that, for the first time, ordinary people started really to get involved on the side of the students. Masses of ordinary people were present well into the early hours of the morning around the student residences of the University of Tehran. This presence of ordinary people, hanging around peacefully, and often with their families, lasted for a whole week.
Why did you give Khatami an ultimatum?
The student movement feels it has no longer any ties to the elected institutions and reformers. Students have trusted the reformers in successive elections and we have kept our part of the bargain. Our letter to Khatami was a farewell and a last ultimatum before cutting all ties. As for the other non-elected parts of the regime, we don't have anything to say to them.
What is the next step for the student movement?
It is not clear yet. Civil disobedience, strikes, and peaceful protests in various locations…all these measures are being considered. The student movement is not prone to violence, although anger and frustration may lead to isolated incidents of violent reaction by students. We realize that violence will destroy our hard-won gains of the past few years. That is why we are moving toward connecting our movement to the demands of other social groups, like workers and even families.
What is clear, though, is that we no longer feel there is any use in continuing a dialogue with the regime, even with the elected reformers. In realizing this, the student movement has shown itself one more time to be a step ahead of the rest of society.
The precondition for entering into alliances with other social groups is a certain degree of discipline and organization. Do you think the student movement has such a discipline and organization?
It is true that the institutions of civil society in the Islamic Republic are dysfunctional. The press, political parties, trade unions — no autonomous organization has been spared the pressure and restraints of the regime. The OCU is no exception. The result has been a serious organizational and institutional vacuum. We are weak in terms of theory, and of political and organizational experience.
But I am hopeful that through the political experiences the students have been gaining in recent years, and especially over the past few months, a consolidation of opinions and a willingness to collaborate together has been emerging. What the student movement has come to realize in recent years is that it is incapable of changing the situation by itself. The student movement needs to collaborate and align itself with other social actors, and even with the urban environment surrounding the universities.
What type of society do you desire? What is your ultimate goal?
At a minimum, we want to ensure civil and social rights and liberties, and we want a democracy. But the students have lost any illusion that working for reforms within the system can bring this about. We believe now that the core of this regime is fundamentally authoritarian, and that it will continue to block all attempts to make ours a more flexible system which respects citizens' rights. This despotic core should be attacked.
Over recent months, an increasing number of supporters of the reform movement have been arguing that the only means of overcoming this deadlock is to call for a change of the constitution.
Back in May 2003, we held an informal referendum at the campus of the Bu Ali Sina University in Hamedan, where the students were asked to cast a vote for one of three constitutions that have been drafted under the Islamic Republic. This was a clever tactic on our part, because all three constitutions had been approved by Ayatollah Khomeini himself at one time or another, so nobody could accuse us of plotting to overthrow the regime.
These three documents were the 1979 provisional constitution of the Revolutionary Council, the 1979 constitution of the Assembly of Experts, and the present constitution, which was drafted in 1989. We spent a week doing intensive public education work, holding workshops and printing leaflets, to clarify the distinctions between the three texts.
When we held a vote, 95 percent of the respondents voted for the first option, primarily because there is no position of vali-ye faqih [the state guardianship of a senior cleric] in that version of the constitution.
We do need a new constitution, one that assures a just distribution of power and safeguards against despotism and abuse. But we should avoid getting obsessed about what name we give the new political system, and focus instead on its content. Obviously, under the present conditions the regime will not allow any constitutional revision or referendum, unless it is forced to. Someone who is pretending to be asleep will only wake up with a good slap!
So what are the prospects that the student movement can organize a wider social coalition aimed at applying the necessary pressure?
By themselves, students cannot lead a social movement. We have distinct strengths: we have an extensive network of student associations in every town where there is a university campus. All the local branches have delegates in the OCU, so we are constantly in touch with the general mood and demands of the student population, nationwide.
Nevertheless, there are limits to what the students can do by themselves. What we can do is be effective in a wider collective front. Look at the reform movement of the Second of Khordad. The OCU was one of three legs that Khatami's reform movement stood on, the other two being the Participation Front and the Mojahedin-e Enqelab Organization. The same is true today. A new coalition has to emerge and gain the trust of the population, and the student movement can play an important role within that coalition.
I see signs of the emergence of this coalition in the recent flurry of open letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei protesting the current situation. Those who have signed these letters range from the extra-parliamentary opposition that supports the reform movement to those elected reformers who have consistently defended the rights of those opposing the regime. My hope is that the student movement consolidates its own place within this emerging coalition, without allowing itself to be manipulated or used by anyone.
What is the place of secular forces in this process?
Secular and religious forces in Iran have been plagued by a rift that should be transcended. I think the student movement has taken the first initiative in bridging this divide. The proposal I made recently to set up a “General Movement for the Consolidation of Democracy” (in lieu of the current OCU) was a concrete step in that direction. I am certain that in the future we will continue to propose more concrete steps toward this rapprochement.
How have Bush Administration statements affected the situation in Iran?
Recent US positions have seriously complicated the position of the reform movement in Iran. Some reformers are highly sensitive to the issue of the territorial integrity of the country. The aggressive US postures encouraging internal disturbances and courting separatist figures [among Iran's Azeri minority] will stir a strong reaction among liberal and nationalist-religious forces, who find themselves walking a tightrope between two right-wing threats — hardliners at home and the Bush administration abroad.
Given the unpredictability of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, the US may at any moment commit one of two strategic errors. A US military attack or a threat against the country's territorial and national integrity will create a strong nationalist reaction. One thing is certain: Iranians will not forgive the US if this were to happen.
The second error the Bush administration may commit is to prioritize its own short-term interests and sacrifice the reform movement and the future of democracy in Iran by making a deal with the hardliners, in exchange for certain significant concessions. This would also cause a deep negative reaction among Iranians and bring about a serious backlash.
Then what should the US do with regard to Iran?
The best thing the US can do is to avoid what they did over the past few weeks. Rhetorical provocations coming out of Washington about “regime change,” the saber-rattling over nuclear reactors and the depiction of student protests as a revolution in the making all played into the hands of the conservatives. After all these cacophonous provocations, when the crunch came and the student protests were repressed, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the US would not get involved in the domestic affairs of Iran!
Perhaps it is naïve to expect more from the Bush Administration. But we can at least expect the American public, the press, intellectuals and fellow students in the US to defend the democratic struggle and human rights in Iran. We expect them to support the democratic reforms in Iran.
The Congress can and should come out and defend its fellow Iranian parliamentarians in their attempts to pass democratic laws, instead of adding fuel to the fire by passing provocative resolutions about “regime change.” Such declarations of solidarity on the part of American public and elected figures do not carry the stigma of the US government meddling in the internal affairs of Iran. Nor will the Iranian public and democrats feel used and left to face repression on their own.
Recently the Iranian monarchists have been very active in claiming that in a free referendum the Iranian population would support their return to power.
Iranians have a peculiar and crafty sense of humor. Given their disillusionment with the Islamic Republic, Iranians will rhetorically declare their sympathy for any other alternative. But when it comes down to it, choices like the monarchy are not taken seriously at all. For the students, at least, a monarchist alternative is taken as an insult. We live in a republic, where at least nominally people can choose who will rule them. Why should they go back to a monarchy, even a constitutional one, where a hereditary sultan is set to rule over them as subjects?
We tried that scenario in 1906 and it did not stop the constitutional monarchy from being abused and turned into a dictatorship. Iran is a complex society with a host of problems. Iranians — not only the students — will ask themselves if any political force presenting itself as an alternative for leading the country if these pretenders have the ability to govern the country or not. Do they have the necessary cadres, competence and popular support?
More importantly, are they familiar with the deeply complicated history and the plethora of issues facing the country or not? I think the popular support that both the democratic and reformist opposition inside and outside the country, as well as the reformers in the government, have enjoyed has been due to the fact that they are not bent on exacting revenge [upon the mullahs]. Their priority is to establish democracy and improve the country's situation.
Is there any popular sentiment supporting direct US intervention aimed at overthrowing the regime?
As I said, Iranians do have a subversive sense of humor! People say things like that to counter the pressure they are under. But how will they act when it comes down to it? Will they support the occupation of the country? How will they treat the occupying soldiers? Look, to change the situation in Iran, the continuous and committed pressure of international opinion, and its support of the existing and growing democratic and reformist movement in Iran is sufficient. Direct intervention will be very costly and destructive for all concerned.
How do the Iranian public and the student movement view the occupation of Iraq?
I have to say that people have a lot of sympathy for Iraqis, and see the occupation as ultimately a positive thing. Iranians were deeply happy about the fall of Saddam Hussein. The hardliner-controlled TV constantly attacks the occupation of Iraq, but because the population absolutely distrusts Iranian TV they end up believing the reverse of whatever it says. One even hears rumors spreading that are completely false, like the rumor that US soldiers acted very bravely and heroically to stop the plunder of museums and resources in Iraq. This sympathy is understandable.
We had a debate among students, and some delegates were citing the example of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim [leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq], who was exiled from Iraq for 20 years, but now has gone back is quite active and can say anything he wants publicly, even against the US. People see this as a sign of democratic behavior on the part of the US, and believe that overthrowing the Baathist regime in Iraq, or even previous US interventions in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan against the Taliban, were positive accomplishments. Having said this, Iranians will not welcome a US military intervention in Iran itself.
What have been the effects of satellite broadcasts from abroad upon recent events? Do these media contribute to the democratic cause in Iran?
I have to confess that there is a big gap between the content of satellite TV and radio broadcasts and the needs and demands of the vast majority of Iranians. Most of these stations are based in the US or operate from there. By the virtue of the continued muzzling of the press in Iran, and the total control of domestic radio and television networks by hardliners, these foreign satellite broadcasters enjoy a monopoly of providing alternative information and programming for the public. As a result, they do have an audience.
But neither the content nor the way they cover the news accurately reflects what is taking place here, nor do they analyze popular demands with any real insight. We really suffer from a serious gap in that regard, as aside from a few surviving newspapers and some Internet sites, we have nothing to satisfy the reformist middle class. Recent restrictions on Internet providers and political sites have limited even that source of information and analysis and debate.