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Wake-up call
The student protests of July 1999

By Ali Akbar Mahdi
July 3, 2000
The Iranian

Excerpt from Ali Akbar Mahdi's "The Student Movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran" published in the Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis (November 1999). See full text here. Mahdi is an associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Farhang-e Irani, J'ame'eh-ye Madani, va Daghdaghe-ye Demokr'asi ("Iranian Culture, Civil Society, and Concern for Democracy, " 1998, Javan Publishing Co., Toronto).

Writing about current affairs is a risky adventure. One may not be sure whether the finger is truly on the pulse of events or only on a flutter resulting from turbulent storms in distant waters. Though many of the facts about the July 1999 student protests in Iranian universities is still to be sorted out, there are missing pieces in the puzzle whose future discovery will help us develop a better and more accurate picture of what happened in those crucial six days.

The more one reads about the those events, the more it becomes clear that much of what is being written is filled with either wishful thinking or calculated reporting. Much of what has been published in Iran about the protests is either calculated by different political factions or self-censored reporting by a press that is in constant fear of attack by the conservative courts and vigilantes, known as the Ansar-e Hezbollah [hereafter the Ansar].

The official reports of the protests can best be described as topsy-turvy. They represent an intentional inversion of facts in order to hide clues as to the real perpetrators of the raid on student dormitories and subsequent events. They are engineered in order to withhold damaging information, generate a sense of stability, blame the trouble on the targeted enemies, and cover up wrong doings by security forces and groups associated with both government factions.

Outside of Iran, reports and analyses of these events, by both Iranians and non-Iranians, are free of censorship but are filled with premature conclusions and romanticization of the student movement in Iran. A respected foreign magazine went so far as to characterize these events as another revolution. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy spoke of "the beginning of the end" of the Islamic Republic and Hammed Shahidian, an Iranian activist scholar in the United States, wrote an article in Persian, titled "The beginning of the End."

Aside from optimistic and sympathetic features of these accounts, they characterize the student movement in Iran as an organized, independent, democratic, and secular movement bent on replacing the Islamic government with a democratic one. Many of the writings about the student movement in Iran are based on a romantic view of student activism and a desire to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The current student movement in Iran is quite different from the movement that developed during the Pahlavi regime.

The revolution and subsequent developments have had qualitative effects on the organization, leadership, ideology, and direction of this movement. The current student movement is significantly more complex and demanding than ever before. It is increasingly connected to the political demands of the Iranian civil society, as well as the factional politics and structural crises within the IRI.

The student protests of July 1999, which were caused by legitimate concerns and demands, had the potential to turn into a widespread general uprising at the national level. Once it began to spread to other campuses, and resonated with a public whose list of grievances were long, the regime realized the danger, and engineered an effective control plan to re-establish law and order in universities and give the impression of being in control.

In the aftermath of these events, the IRI has begun a two-pronged strategy of using carrot and stick intermittently. On one hand, the security and intelligence forces have been interrogating, intimidating, and arresting students, as well as leaders of splinter groups such as Manouchehr Mohammadi and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's organizations. They also have used the occasion to crackdown on the activities of nationalist opposition groups like Hezb-e Mellat-e Iran (Nation of Iran Party), Nehzat-e Azaadi-ye Iran (Freedom Movement of Iran), Jebh-e Melli Iran (National Front of Iran), and the Pan Iranist Party.

The Ministry of Intelligence continues to charge these groups with ties to the United States, Israel, and other foreign enemies. The government has also been calling members of Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (DTV - Solidarity Consolidation Office) student organization for interrogation, forcing them to sign statements of non-participation in any future protest. These arrests, call-ins, and intimidation are often done without public announcement and exposure, though reports are often leaked to reformist papers supporting President Khatami.

These measures are meant to weaken, discredit and frighten "ghayr-e khodi" (out-group) opposition groups and individuals, as opposed to "khodis" (in-group). The conservatives have made no secret of their determination to use all means available to maintain their control of political institutions and to allow no room for growth of secular and liberal Islamic opposition forces, especially among the students where they have the strongest support.

In the wake of the bloody attack and its subsequent widespread protests, the conservatives have come to the conclusion that they have to get along with the reformist faction and work together against what they have termed "the third current," or "ghayr-e khodis," namely nationalists, secularists, Marxists, and independent activists who do not support the Islamic system. This is a call that is received positively, but quietly, by the DTV as well.

Given the fact that students were a major force in the revolution and later in the establishment of an Islamic government, the IR cannot deny students the right to be political. Unlike the Pahlavi state whose aim was de-politicization of students, the IR has always supported politicization of students as long as their political activities supported the state ideology and policies. On numerous occasions the Islamic leaders have insisted that students remain politically active.

At the same time, the bitter experiences of the early years of the revolution, when various groups participating in the revolution demanded a share of power and opposed the establishment of a theocratic state, has made the leadership of the IR suspicious of any opposition outside of the establishment, be it from students or political parties. The IR cannot afford an independent student movement questioning its policies, programs, and legitimacy.

It is because of this ambivalence that we have witnessed contradictory remarks by government officials regarding the politicization of student activities. On one hand, Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani argue that students should remain political. On the other hand, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the parliament speaker and an important leader of the conservative coalition, tells the students to avoid engaging in politics.

One of the problems facing the IR is that the clerical leadership has had difficulty balancing its past with the future, its ideology with the practice, its revolutionary rhetoric with the realities of political stability, and its radicalism with its conservatism. The regime wants to have it both ways. It wants to claim that students are free to organize and be politically active, but only if they are Muslim and supporters of the IR. It wants to have an active student body, but only if its activities support the causes of the regime. The regime knows that once student riots begin in universities, they might easily spread to high schools and main streets.

However, regardless of what the IR government wishes, it is on a path of increasing conflict with the students. Iran's population is very young and that is a major problem for the regime. The Iranian youth are frustrated, angry, and restless. The more the IR tightens security and limits young students' freedoms, the more it adds to tensions which have already passed boiling level. These latest protests and the government reaction to them have radicalized students and given them more reasons to engage in future protests.

The immediate consequences of the suppression of the student unrest are setbacks for the re-emerging independent student organizations and secular activists. In the short run, the emergence of an independent, secular, and nationalist student movement in the IRI has been stopped in the embryonic stage. However, these events, and the level of frustration and resentment they have created, have laid the ground for disillusionment from student organizations that have the support of political factions.

Unconventional methods of resistance to state policies, especially those regarding socio-political freedoms and student life, will become more attractive to students who have already paid a high price for their protests. The current student organizations in universities are doomed because of fractures and dismemberment. Given their continued reliance on the political factions within the establishment, and the conciliatory attitudes of their leaders regarding recent developments, they are bound to lose momentum, enthusiasm, and members. Their existence has become too dependent on political factions and their affiliated media.

It is hard to imagine that the suppressed and frustrated energies of politically-disillusioned and physically-beaten students will dissipate soon. Although it is hard to predict how and when they will be released, it is wrong to assume that they can be suppressed for long. If there is no natural process of democratization through which energies reserved in the student movement can be released gradually and consumed appropriately, these energies will explode as soon as they find an outlet. Social unrest in other arenas or a disturbance within any university can ignite and provide a natural outlet.

What happened in Iranian universities last summer has laid the foundation for further disturbances that can only be prevented by a genuine democratic process, not by political manipulation and restrictive rules. Full text here

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