Ketab Farsi bilingual books

email us

US Transcom
US Transcom

Advertise with The Iranian

Cover story

 Write for The Iranian

Widening gap
Reflections on the student uprising

By Rasool Nafisi
July 26, 1999
The Iranian

When the son of Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the Expediency Council and one of the main players in Iranian clerical politics, surfaced in Washington last year and asked for political asylum, it was obvious that the youth had had it with the paternalistic structure of the Iranian state. Recent events supported this view. A simple incident -- banning of a popular newspaper, not an uncommon event in Iran -- ignited the wrath of the youth. Six days of demonstrations and rebellion followed in more than a dozen cities. Lives were lost and many casualties occurred. Why did it happen now? (See Nafisi's photos of Iran).

Imagine you are a young person in Iran. These are some of the things you can't do: choosing your own hairdo or clothes, socializing at parties, dating, or even hiking without the presence of Islamic vigilantes. Worse still is that you know the economy is going downhill, the population is growing at a fast rate, and there is little or no prospect for you to land a job to support a family. A university degree, once a direct avenue to status and prestige, is no longer worth much.

Ironically, the student rebellion took place because there is more, not less, freedom. In his own quiet style, President Khatami brought about change through relative freedoms. In particular the presence of a somewhat free press allowed a milieu where students exchanged ideas and published radical papers that openly criticized the government.

On the other hand, Khatami's reforms did not and could not yield much more. The oil-dependent economy is not amenable to reform, and social issues related to women and youth are things that the hardline conservatives are very sensitive to, and therefore beyond the reach of reform. The only privilege the youth have enjoyed is a relatively free press. But a new law passed by the Majlis in early July took away much of those limited freedoms. The limited range of reforms, the unresolved investigations into the killings of dissidents, and an atmosphere of dissent had already provided the necessary conditions for an uprising.

The rebellion began with a very small number of students demonstrating against the closure of a semi-liberal paper, Salam. However, even this small protest was received a harsh reaction: thugs and the police attacked Tehran University's student dormitory before dawn, threw students out of their rooms (some from the second and third floors), beat them and set the buildings on fire.

This ruthless tactic was partly inspired by previous riot-control actions during an uprising in 1995. When the poor demonstrated in Islamshahr 's shantytown to protest the doubling of bus fares, police surrounded them and attacked with military helicopters. The debris was immediately cleaned up, blood washed, and no one ever found out the number of casualties. That was the end of the uprising.

Thus a swift and brutal measure was meant to quell the students' revolt early on. However, in this case, the tactic did not work. Students proved to be of a different breed compared to the unemployed and underemployed in Islamshahr. Indeed the next day thousands of students demonstrated and protests carried on for several days. Their ranks swelled, their demands soared and their slogans targeted the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, himself.

The students had previous experiences in expressing their anger in public. In April 1998 they called for the freedom of Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, the popular Mayor of Tehran, who was sentenced to prison on corruption charges levelled against him by the conservatives. Last June the students rallied in support of Mohsen Kadivar, an intellectual cleric who was sentenced to a year and half in prison for his anti-establishment views. Then, just before the July uprising, there were demonstrations demanding the release of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, a student leader.

The protests against the closure of Salam and the toughening of the press law, could have been easily managed without the use of force. It could have even brought the students closer to the state if their initial moderate demands had been met. But instead the security forces, backed by vigilantes, took extreme measures to crush the protests.

The state of course could have showed more statesmanship and given some concessions to the students by allowing Salam to resume publication. Or it could have blocked the passage of the anti-press press law. The least it could have done was to dismiss those in charge of suppressing the student protests. But the Islamic state seems to be keen on maintaining a tough stance against dissent.

In fact in his response, Ayatollah Khamenei did not acknowledge the serious problems facing the youth of the country. Instead he blamed the student uprising on the schism between the ranks of insiders -- a very familiar term meaning those close to the original Islamic revolutionaries who brought down the Pahlavi regime.

Also the insiders include the faithful who have proved their loyalty to the Islamic Republic in the war against Iraq and in dealing with urban disturbances. Khamenei demonstrated how out of touch the state and its old, traditionalist clergymen really are. They don't seem to understand the growing gap between themselves and the youth -- who make up more than half the population.

The final coup de grace was the demonstration staged by the traditionalist wing of the state in which thousands of people, -- mostly called to action by the mosques -- denounced the usual suspects -- Mojahedin Khalq, the U.S., and Israel -- as the main instigators of the rebellion. They totally dismissed all the true reasons for the youth unrest.

The traditionalist wing of the Islamic Republic once again demonstrated who the "people" are: the lower classes with low levels of education and strong loyalties to the conservative clergy. According to them, the students have either deviated from the rest of the population or have been manipulated by satanic forces.

This attitude has not helped reduce the widening gap between the youth and the state. Indeed it seems no lessons have been learned from the rebellion, and this, of course, could pave the way for the harsher clashes.


Rasool Nafisi is dean of general studies at Strayer University in the Washington DC area. Also see Nafisi's photos of Iran ... TO TOP

- Send a comment for The Iranian letters section
- Send a comment to the author, Rasool Nafisi

Copyright © Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

 MIS Internet Services

Web Site Design by
Multimedia Internet Services, Inc

 GPG Internet server

Internet server by
Global Publishing Group.